Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

5 September 2011
Prologue and Chapters 1-4
I’ve only been reading for – what – 20 minutes? half an hour? – and Steinbeck wants us to know that he isn’t only writing about a few low-lifes in the armpit of Monterey. These people, he tells us on the first page, for all their sins – which he lists – and all their virtues – which he also lists – are Everybody. He writes in cracker-barrel metaphors: the periodic burst of activity in the canneries in response to the arrival of the sardine-fishing fleet, is – and he tells us he’d better be careful – a digestive process, so let’s say it starts at the tail-end, because if he said it started at the mouth, well, think how disgusting that would be. He’s defying us, daring us to take it seriously – and daring us not to take it seriously.

Something else he’s being defiant about: conventional morality. Does he try too hard? He gives us endless nudges and hints that the way of life he’s describing demonstrates as valuable a working morality as anything the church-going ‘spinster-wives’ of the town can come up with. The Chinese grocer, Lee Chong, so tolerant of late payers he can’t make any money, surely; the bums who live in the rusty pipes, until one of them suggests they move into a useless fish-meal store Lee Chong has taken in lieu of payment from a man who kills himself, almost comically, soon afterwards. (Or is that somebody else?) It’s a protection scam – but our philosophising narrator lets us know that the bums, now squatters, keep away the thieves and riffraff, so the little Chinese has gained from the deal. The brothel gets the same treatment: in this universe, the black economy gives more back to he community – 50 times more, in some measurable instances – than legitimate businesses.

But what made me stop at the end of Chapter 4 is the ancient ‘Chinaman’ who makes his way one way up the street at dawn and the other way down it at dusk. Is he Death​? Some people think so, but our man couldn’t possibly comment. And he has a ten-year-old boy, not from these parts and therefore not as wary as the local boys, taunt him despite the qualms even he feels. Bad move. The loneliness behind the old man’s eyes expands until there is nothing else to see but a desolate landscape beyond them that makes the boy whimper. We know the boy won’t be trying that again, because our man tells us. But he doesn’t tell us what planet we’re on; if we thought we were in a Runyonesque world of charming low-lifes, well, perhaps we are, sometimes. But at other times we’re somewhere else entirely.

5 September, later
Chapters 5-15
Things settle down, and Steinbeck seems to be holding back on the grander Human Condition themes of the early chapters. Mainly, it’s about how people manage to survive in the Depression of the 1930s – and most of it reminds me of something else: the descriptions of landscape that open and close Of Mice and Men, and the pecking-order amongst men that you get in that novel; short stories by writers who came later, like Raymond Carver, with their bunches of guys doing stuff; O Brother, Where Art Thou? in which, surely, the George Clooney character is based on the quick-thinking, plausible Mack…. These are men – almost exclusively men – on the margins.

Their abject poverty some time around 1937 becomes the stuff of scams, chutzpah and comic ways of coping. There’s the old steam boiler from the cannery, stripped of useful parts and turned into a married couple’s house. Cue ridiculous stories, once the man seems to be moving up in the world – how we laughed – of how his wife insists on curtains, how he reminds her they have no windows, how he is later discovered asking whether anybody knows of any glue that might stick cloth to iron….

Is it sentimental nonsense? In the resolutely non-judgmental ethical world our narrator insists on, nothing is anybody’s fault – or, if it is, it doesn’t matter anyway, because all anybody is trying to do is just get along. Ok, when Mack and the boys take over Lee Chong’s fish-meal store, it hurts nobody. When they borrow his Model T truck, with his permission, it hurts nobody – and when they try to exchange the note for ten gallons of petrol into something they can buy drink with, the Doc who signed it has phoned ahead to the gas station because he knows what they’re like. But you can’t blame a man for trying, not in this world. But what about a carburettor​? Our man, as ever, withholds judgment: all he says is that it’s a good job Model T parts are not identifiable.

We meet some new characters to go with the old ones and their stories, which were interlocking from the start, interlock even more now. There’s Doc, the research scientist (I think) who, because of his drinking and other habits, fits seamlessly into Cannery Row. He scratches a living selling marine creatures for dissection in laboratories, and has dealings with some of the bums – not bums at all now, because they’re settling properly into the fish-meal store – particularly Hazel, he of the girl’s name and apparently congenital inability to focus. The Doc attracts people that nobody else pays attention to, because he’s kind; one chapter tells the story of the boy who is learning difficulties personified and who, in incremental stages, moves in.

But it’s the lives of Mack and the others that drive most of the chapters now, and leads to something approaching a plot. We’ve seen how, through scavenging and pilfering, they’ve managed to furnish the fish-meal store so well, in a broken-down way, that they start calling it the Palace flophouse. If things might look a bit familiar to somebody, well, paint them red using the huge can of paint somebody’s picked up. There’s plenty of alcohol: one of them, Eddie, works at a bar when the regular guy takes time off – which is often – and fills a big jug with anything that people leave in their glasses. (It breaks all their rules of etiquette when one of them remarks that it might be nice if Eddie kept different kinds of drink in different jugs, and he is so embarrassed by his faux pas he spends the next five minutes explaining why, in fact, he likes things just as they are.)

It’s all like this: these outsiders, our narrator seems to be saying, are just like you and me. Well, maybe. But he needs them to be clownishly crooked as well. The boys want to do something to show how much they appreciate what Doc does for them all – a party, Mack suggests – and this is where a plot spanning several chapters comes from. They will catch frogs for the Doc, which he will pay them for at his usual rate: all fair and legit. They will need the truck which Gay, an associate member of the band, will fix for Lee Chong as fair payment. All good so far. But from now on we see how hard it is for a guy to stay on the straight and narrow. They try the trick with the Doc’s note for gasoline; Gay needs to fix the needle-valve in the carburettor and goes off to see what he can find – not to be seen again for 180 days because, as the narrator explains, Fate is against him and he ends up in jail for looting. Someone else takes a carburettor from someone else’s Model T; dinner near the Carmel river is provided by a rooster they only just managed to swerve into accidentally because it was so far off the road (and suddenly I’m wondering whether that’s a metaphor); and they have to set up camp illegally on someone’s land because, well, what else can you do?

The farmer turns up with his shotgun to clear them off. Mack, all charm, apologises and they start to clear up – until Mack notices the farmer’s bird-dog is in some discomfort…. One thing leads to another, and by the end of the night Mack has sorted out the dog’s problem, they’ve all had a wonderful party with his old whiskey, they’ve cleared his pond of the frogs that drive him mad, and Mack has a new puppy. Everybody’s happy. Except…

…the farmer’s wife won’t be pleased when she comes home to find the mess in the kitchen. She’s a part of the insider world – she’s clawing her way up in local government – so she represents authority. And she’s a woman, and women don’t seem to have any comfortable place in the marginal world we’re in most of the time. Aside from Dora, the brothel madame – and we’ve only had the tiniest glimpses of her – all that women can do in this world is make men’s lives more complicated. Not a great feminist, Steinbeck, on this showing.

I’ve been thinking. The woman who lives in a boiler only starts wanting to make improvements when her husband starts to make money by selling berths in the disused pipes from the cannery – find somewhere else if you like sleeping curled up, ho-ho – and Lee Chong is the epitome of the immigrant store-keeper, the direct antecedent of Abu in The Simpsons. And Mack: aren’t all his scams business deals really? At base, isn’t this how capitalism works? Is this book a satire on the American Dream of success through entrepreneurship? (Don’t ask me, I’m not even half-way through it yet.)

8 September
Chapters 16-23
No, not really capitalism, although Mack could probably do it if he wanted. Doc, in his non-judgmental ways and his habit of philosophising, seems to be the closest to Steinbeck in spirit – or, at least, to Steinbeck in his role as narrator of this particular novel – and he asserts that Mack and the boys are clever. They just don’t want to be a part of the rat-race. He doesn’t call it that, but that’s what he means. They could get up in the morning, earn a living – occasionally they do just this, and are proud of their reputation for sticking at things for whole weeks at a time – but would that make them happy? Haven’t the occupants of the Palace flophouse got things exactly as they want them? So, following chapters of clownishness – tell you later – we’re back with the Human Condition again.

The main thread of these chapters is the follow-up to Mack’s party idea and the frog-catching expedition although, as he does throughout the book, Steinbeck will give us a single chapter expanding on a character or theme he’s only allowed a glimpse of before. There’s the record-breaking skater on a platform, there to publicise a store – and, by implication, because that’s the only way he can make a living. There’s Henri the painter, and there’s something inevitable about the fact that he’s neither called Henri nor paints. The frog-catching expedition is interrupted by a chapter describing what Steinbeck calls the ‘pearl time’, that period of twilight on the margins of the day when it is neither light nor dark, when the ‘Chinaman’ walks and time seems to stop. Steinbeck likes margins.

The Doc likes margins as well, particularly that area of the shore left teeming with creatures after the tide has receded. We follow him on an expedition, told in some detail, to a shoreline hundreds of miles down the coast, a whole day’s journey. We think it’s just so we can get one of this book’s stories within the main narrative – which we do, and it includes the discovery of a woman’s drowned body that Robert Carver must have had in mind in one of his own stories. The Doc is shocked, hears plaintive music playing – music is, as it were, a leitmotif with him – and tells a passer-by. He is happy to let the other man claim the bounty money. (In the Carver story, the point is that the men who discover the body don’t do anything about it. Steinbeck will have none of that sort of cynicism, thank you.) But while he’s away…

… Mack and the boys have their chance to prepare for the surprise party. Their intentions are good – a point that Steinbeck reminds us of at least three times – but, well, we know about best-laid plans. It’s like Laurel and Hardy with added whiskey, and the result is a farcical version of what happens the plans made by the characters in Of Mice and Men. They sell the frogs to Lee Chong in return for decorations and booze – insisting that he loans the frogs back to them so Doc can see them on his return – and… it’s a disaster. What else would it be? Doc comes home after it’s over, and his house is a wreck.

But guess what? Once he’s hit Mack in the mouth a few times, he’s ok about it, understands Mack and the others were only trying to be nice… etc. They share a couple of quarts of beer, Mack tells Doc how his good intentions always end in a mess. After Mack has made his sorry way home and the Doc has spent a day clearing up – having refused, for pragmatic reasons, to accept Mack’s offer to pay for the damage ‘if it takes five years’ because it would never happen – Steinbeck allows a pall of depression to fall on Cannery Row. You can do that in stories. The hypocrites decide the damage to Doc’s house was wanton vandalism and the boys are ostracised; the spinster-wives insist on closing the brothel, which is something that happens every year, but it’s for longer than usual this time; a trawler comes loose from its moorings and causes a lot of damage; even the puppy gets ill. But then everything comes right again, so that’s all right.

What’s struck me is that this book is part of a very American phenomenon: authors package up a tiny piece of America for us, let us know how weird and eccentric it is and, essentially, how lovable. In the past year or so, I’ve read several: the great-granddaddy of them all, Huckleberry Finn, in which Mark Twain does it for the Mississippi river; 60 years later we get Cannery Row; 20-odd years after that, John Kennedy Toole is writing A Confederacy of Dunces, populating New Orleans with lovable freaks; and, most recently, in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil John Berendt does the same for Savannah. Do the writers anywhere else compose these affectionate hymns to their own country’s hidden corners? (And is Bret Easton Ellis satirising the tradition in American Psycho? In that book, when he turns over a stone on a closed community in New York, we definitely don’t like what crawls out.)

9 September
Chapter 24 to the end
The germ of the idea of a party is first mentioned in Chapter 1 – ‘We should do something for Doc’ – and the idea of one that won’t go wrong this time is the main thread for the rest of the book. The improvement in the mood that has already started carries on, apparently through some strange influence emanating from the Palace flophouse. Steinbeck gives us one of those descriptive passages in which he seems to be daring us not to believe, as the aura of goodwill and happiness seems to move perceptibly along the Row. As I’ve said before, writers can do that – and from now on, this is going to be a feelgood story. We get some dark little chapters interrupting the warm feeling from time to time – I’ll come back to them – but, basically, from now on everything’s lovely. Mack and the boys are lovely, with their ridiculous little trick to get Doc to reveal his birthday. Lee Chong is lovely, rooting around for the firecrackers he’s been saving for some special occasion. The whores are really lovely, creating a lovely patchwork quilt that the Doc thinks is lovely.

What do you need to know? This being the comic-book world that it’s become, the more of a secret the party is supposed to be, the more Doc knows about it. He prepares for it far better than Mack and the boys, buying in half-decent whiskey and beefsteaks. In an early chapter – I’ll try and find the relevant bit in a moment – Steinbeck defies us to assign any symbolic or archetypal roles for his characters. But Doc is the parent-figure, the one who plans ahead and clears up afterwards, because his wayward kids aren’t grown-up enough to think for themselves. (He’s also the one they come to for any kind of help, including veterinary and medical; they haven’t reached that cynical point where they realise that fathers don’t know everything. It’s one of the problems I have with the book that some of the main characters are trapped in a perpetual adolescence.)

The party takes place, seems to be winding down when Doc reads a touching poem about love and loss – then erupts into life again when gatecrashers arrive. There’s a highly enjoyable fight… etc. Next morning, Doc surveys the damage – not quite as bad as the last time – and is highly satisfied with the fun they’ve all had. As he clears up, he puts on one of his beloved records of choir music, remembers more verses of the lovely poem and, all around him, there’s evidence of a heavenly order: the sea is making its sounds, the animals are in their cages, and he is in charge. If God came to live on Cannery Row, this is how he would live, and it would be lonely.

Do I believe that about God? Amongst all the comedy, which is what people remember about his book and what allowed it to be turned into a feelgood stage show, there are insistent reminders of the darkness beneath. There are at least three suicides – two early on, described in almost throwaway terms, plus another in one of the dark little chapters in this last section: one boy teases another, in that cruel way we know some boys have, about how his father killed himself. We meet Frankie again, the boy with severe learning difficulties. He steals a big clock for the Doc’s birthday because, as he says at the end of his dark little chapter, he loves him. Doc offers to adopt him, but agrees he’s beyond help. Gulp. Doc seems to be the one who comes face to face with what lies beneath, sometimes literally: he is the one who finds a drowned woman – and lets somebody else take the bounty. Another dark chapter, slipped in just before the final one, needs no further comment: what starts off as a Looney Tunes cartoon of a gopher settling in turns into an bleak vision of loneliness, violence and the constant threat of death.

What’s the point of these interludes if not to act as reminders that the bright surface of things is a thin veneer over a very scary place that lurks just beneath? All we can do is – what? Go to Lee Chong’s for our quart of beer, forgive people their little failings and remember that compared to the sea – which, now I think about it, is where the ‘Chinaman’ seems to come from – nothing amounts to a hill of beans anyway.


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