Sweet Thursday—John Steinbeck

17 September 2019
Chapters 1-20—the first half
Is this novel really adding to what Steinbeck was offering us in Cannery Row? This is a sequel, published nine or ten years later (1954), and… it isn’t really for me. I read Cannery Row a few years back, and a lot that I wrote about it then also applies to the later novel. There are a few new characters, and we’re in the years immediately following the War instead of just before, but a lot feels the same. Even the main plot seems to be a variant of what we’ve seen before. Mack and the boys are feeling a bit sorry for Doc, though not for some silly behaviour of theirs this time, and they want to do something for him. A new madame at the Bear Flag brothel is as kindly as the last one, and she wants to help too. Bless.

Before I go on, I’ll just sift through what I wrote about Cannery Row and paste anything here that seems to fit this first half of Sweet Thursday. Then I’ll move on, promise.

‘Steinbeck wants us to know that he isn’t only writing about a few low-lifes …. These people are Everybody. He’s defying us, daring us to take it seriously—and daring us not to take it seriously.… 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.

‘These are men—almost exclusively men—on the margins. 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…. These outsiders, our narrator seems to be saying, are just like you and me. Well, maybe. But they are also lovable rogues with a taste for alcohol.

‘Doc … attracts people because he’s kind. … With his non-judgmental ways and his habit of philosophising, he seems to be the closest to Steinbeck in spirit…. Steinbeck likes margins…. Doc likes margins as well. 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…. Steinbeck defies us to assign any symbolic or archetypal roles for his characters. But Doc is the parent-figure…. 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…. Some of the main characters are trapped in a perpetual adolescence.

‘Women don’t seem to have any comfortable place in the marginal world we’re in most of the time. … all that women can do in this world is make men’s lives more complicated. Not a great feminist, Steinbeck, on this showing.

‘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…. The great-granddaddy of them all, which goes a great deal further than that, is Huckleberry Finn….’

As I said, all cut and pasted from what I wrote about Cannery Row. But what’s new? Umm… Most of the men have been to war, and most came back. Doc, while he bided his time in the army, handed the specimen-collecting business over to a scientist colleague. He let it go to ruin, but Doc’s been able to claw most of it back. Dora the madame has handed over the business to her sister Flora, now renamed Fauna, and she is as concerned about her girls’ moral and social well-being as any headmistress of her pupils. Lee Chong the Chinese store owner has moved on to greater things, they all hope. The new owner, Joseph and Mary, is Mexican, a lifelong crook trying honesty for a change. But dishonesty flows through his veins, so he is intrigued and annoyed when Doc shows him chess, and assures him there is simply no way to cheat. And there’s a new girl at the Bear Flag, fresh from the bus station and far too feisty for the job. Fauna knows it, knows she’ll end up the loser, but takes her on anyway. The local cop, knowing all about it, is glad she’s found her feet.

So things change, and things stay the same. There are more scenes set inside the Bear Flag, and more inside the Western Biological Laboratory, Doc’s place. He’s settling back into the routine at first, with his quarts of beer and his easy way of letting himself be tapped for a couple of bucks…. But there’s a problem, and it seems to be leading to a much more extended story arc than we ever got in Cannery Row. Doc seems to be suffering from mid-20th Century anomie—there’s plenty of jokey (or not so jokey) talk about atom bombs—as though Steinbeck wants to show us that it isn’t only writers like Sartre who get to deal with this stuff. And anyway, the plight of returning soldiers was already a huge industry in 1940s and 50s America…. But, even if all the fishing grounds have been emptied and the canneries are shut, this is still Cannery Row and, inevitably, solutions suggest themselves. And, as I’ve mentioned, Mack and Fauna are behind them.

To be fairly brief. Doc, vaguely dissatisfied by how he’s back to doing what he always, used to do, becomes restless. He’s taking one of his serial girlfriends on a specimen-finding expedition down the coast, and it’s going well—she’s ‘flexible,’ which seems to mean she’ll go along with his enthusiasms. Up to a point—but he goes beyond that point when, out of the blue, he suddenly starts to focus in on the ‘apoplectic’-seeming behaviour of the little octopi in a pool. He starts to speculate on what’s going on inside them, what psycho-physiological phenomena are taking place…. Which is when the girlfriend, unnoticed by him, starts to lose interest. He doesn’t care, brings 30-odd specimens back in the car—stopping often to keep them damp and cool while she yawns—and, back home, hardly notices when she stops coming to see him.

Steinbeck has told it like this because, when Doc decides he’s going to write a paper—and fails to get beyond a few screwed-up pages—the community takes note. Clearly, there’s been a disturbance in the Force when a man like Doc seems to have lost interest in everything, including women. Over time, and following an argumentative encounter he has with Suzy, the new girl at Fauna’s—she had been sent on an errand to take him a consoling cake—plans start getting made. It’s clear to Fauna that Doc needs a wife. She’s proud of her gold stars, on display to represent the former protégées of hers who have made good marriages. And she is pretty sure that the one for Doc is feisty Suzy. She won’t simply go with the flow like everyone else, won’t stick to other people’s rules—she even likes thinking, for goodness’ sake—so she’ll give Doc something to take his mind off all that existential angst. That isn’t how Fauna puts it.

Meanwhile the boys have been giving Mack time, space and plenty of beer to think through a plan of his own. He’s been worried about the Palace flop-house, their home, which was owned by Lee Chong. So does it now belong to Joseph and Mary? They’ll be in trouble if it does—he won’t let them live there for free. So, two birds with one stone. He visits Jesus and Mary with some raffle tickets they’ve made, with the Palace flop-house as the prize. Joseph and Mary doesn’t bat an eyelid and, when he hears that the raffle is to finance a $400 microscope for Doc to be able to do his research properly, he buys ten dollars’ worth of tickets. The raffle will be rigged so that the Doc wins, and everything will be all right. But—and this is the sitcom kind of mindset we’re in now—we wonder what will happen when Joseph and Mary fixes the raffle for himself. He didn’t know he owned it, but he will after he wins.

One last thing. Or first thing. In a fit of metafictional self-consciousness, Steinbeck has an introduction in which Mack talks to the boys about Cannery Row, and how he wishes he could tell the writer to do things different next time. It gives Steinbeck the opportunity to present a cracker-barrel version of possible critiques of the earlier book—‘I like a lot of talk in a book, and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like’ and the rest—and it lets him foreground a particular feature. Mack calls it hooptedoodle—‘Spin up some pretty words maybe, or sing a little song with language’—and, dutifully, Steinbeck offers that as the title of Chapter 3. Does he try too hard sometimes?

20 September
Chapters 21-40—to the end
As I read this second half, I became more and more bemused. Steinbeck is one of the 20th Century’s great writers, and here he is giving us comfortable homespun truths about the certainties of heterosexual love. OK, he’s still insisting that his microcosm of humanity on the margins is more interesting and morally fit for purpose than conventional society, but the way he goes about proving it is as corny as hell. In the end—from the start, perhaps—it’s a screwball Shakespearean comedy, one of those in which the main characters don’t really know their own minds and have to be brought together by a convoluted plot and implausible shifts in the head. Or is it really an old-style 1940s Hollywood musical? The comic characters are there, the strong-minded women who’ve been round the block and know a few things… and the plot is straightforward and ridiculous. But what’s a musical without the songs? There’s a little hooptedoodle now and again—in fact, some of Steinbeck’s descriptions of perfect days, or terrible times of group disappointment, are really good—but a few dance numbers would be nice….

The nearest thing to a dance number is the ‘masquerade’ party that goes wrong. It’s supposed to bring together the two madcap plots hatched by Mack and Fauna for Doc’s future happiness. It’s the drawing of the raffle, the one for the Palace flop-house that will save the boys’ home and buy doc his microscope, and it’s a kind of wedding masque, with Suzy as the bride. It ends in collective shame and guilt after it’s all collapsed. First, Doc refuses to play—he’s had two solid days of drunken quarrelling with Old Jingleballicks, the man who brought his business almost to ruin during the War. Then into the mess comes Hazel, the sweetest of all the boys, dressed up as a grotesque Prince Charming as a nasty practical joke by the community’s gay outsider. (I’m not making this up.) He’d make a fitting centrepiece of a Gay Pride march, and in the days that follow we get that cloud of shared gloom that is as sure a symbol of community solidarity as its shared joys. Bless, again.

We always knew the de facto engagement party would fail, because neither participant is ready and, an even bigger clue, there are still 50 or 60 pages yet to go. This is just the ‘boy loses girl’ middle section of the comedy ‘boy meets girl’ plot—and it’s poor old Hazel who gets to save Doc from himself. The big joke is—and remember, we’re talking about one of the 20th Century’s great writers here—Hazel’s sweetness is all based on how he hasn’t got an idea in his head. People talk to him about their troubles because they know he doesn’t retain anything. So how can he bring together a man who doesn’t know that Suzy is the girl for him and is determined not to chase her and the girl—they’re all girls in this book—who is quickly proving she can build a new life for herself on her own?

The problem for me is, it’s terrible, even if I did smile at the end. What makes it terrible is… everything. In 1950s America you could write a game-changing novel about illicit sexuality and a murderous sense of male entitlement. That would be Lolita in 1955. Or, the year before, you could write a novel like this, in which red-blooded men just need a good woman, and if they don’t know about it, well, ain’t that just men for you? It helps if the woman, mixed-up, too-feisty Suzy, is prepared to make some big changes in her life. Fauna is a guru of female experience, and has given her some pride in herself. By the end, Suzy has shown how conventionally capable she is. She’s practically managing the local diner within days of being taken on, and she’s signed up on a typing course, maybe planning on becoming a secretary. My god. Here, at the centre of a novel about male needs, we have a writer who thinks it’s OK to have a feisty young woman and wise older dame to move the plot along.

Doc still wants to write his paper, and a new life of study and intellectual seriousness awaits. That’s just his super-ego talking—Steinbeck makes a big thing of a kind of cracker-barrel Freudianism—but he’ll need some help to listen to the two layers of his mind lurking below. Hazel, following crazy words from the local ‘seer’—no, really—realises he’ll have to be cruel to be kind to Doc. He breaks his arm with a bat while he sleeps so he won’t be able to go away from the happy denouement he, Hazel, has already accidentally set up. And, by the end, Doc has moderated his ambitions—because, hell, everybody knows that ambitions aren’t the important things in life.

Do I want to write any more about it? There’s kindness in spades, good community feeling, people helping each other out all the time. It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting of lovable lowlifes, kept in order by the friendly local cop. I love Norman Rockwell, like I love some of this novel, but he isn’t pushing any artistic boundaries. (The cop is the one to lend Suzy the money she needs to set herself up in that old boiler from Cannery Row, which she is able to repay in two weeks.) The only one who doesn’t understand any of it is that local gay. He’s a cook at the Bear Flag, and he thinks his ridiculous novel full of symbolism and myth will make him famous. How we laughed. He did that nasty thing with Hazel, but… Cannery Row is big enough to let it pass. And we all have the unspoken satisfaction that he’ll never get to settle down with what everybody knows a man needs.

I wrote earlier about how there were a lot of post-war American men writing novels about the male experience of coming to terms with peacetime life. I’ll be happy not to read another any time soon.

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