Book Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (Classics Club Spin #30)

Title: Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: 1945
Length: 181 pages
Genre: Fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Cannery Row is a book without much of a plot. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the feeling and people of a place, the cannery district of Monterey, California, which is populated by a mix of those down on their luck and those who choose for other reasons not to live “up the hill” in the more respectable area of town. The flow of the main plot is frequently interrupted by short vignettes that introduce us to various denizens of the Row, most of whom are not directly connected with the central story. These vignettes are often characterized by direct or indirect reference to extreme violence: suicides, corpses, and the cruelty of the natural world.

The “story” of Cannery Row follows the adventures of Mack and the boys, a group of unemployed yet resourceful men who inhabit a converted fish-meal shack on the edge of a vacant lot down on the Row.

Cannery Row is my summer 2022 Classics Club Spin book, and I’ll admit that I felt a bit ambivalent when my spin landed on this book. I’ve had a copy of Cannery Row on my shelf for a few years now and have been wanting to read more Steinbeck, but meanwhile, my book group read Tortilla Flat last year, and that seemed like enough for the time being!

Still, once I got started, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Steinbeck’s descriptions and unique way with words.

In Cannery Row, as the synopsis above states, there really isn’t much of a plot. Instead, it’s a series of vignettes and moments that capture the spirit of a time and place. As the author explains in the very first passage of the books:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

I read that first line, and I was hooked!

It continues:

Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories, and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

If there is a main character in Cannery Row, I suppose it might be Mack:

Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.

A less generous writer might describe Mack and his group as bums, but Steinbeck instead presents them as well-intentioned pranksters whose endeavors usually go sideways, but who never mean anyone any harm. They drink and go on adventures, and are admirers of Doc, who runs Western Biological, the laboratory and business where he collects, studies, and sells the specimens he finds along the shores and in the tidepools of Monterey Bay and beyond.

Others in the neighborhood include the Bear Flag Restaurant, which is actually a popular brothel run by the kind madam Dora, and Lee Chong’s store, where pretty much anything can be found at any time of year. Then there’s the couple who turned an abandoned cannery boiler in a vacant lot into a makeshift house, and then became landlords by renting out the random pipes on the lot as sleeping shelters for the various men needing a roof over their heads.

The characters interact through business deals and random conversations and unbalanced bargains. An ongoing thread in the book is Mack’s desire to throw a party for Doc to show him how much he and the boys appreciate him. Let’s just say that it does not go as planned — before the night is out, much of Doc’s home and lab is destroyed, and there are frogs everywhere! The gang’s search for frogs is another very funny saga, and even results in a brand-new Cannery Row economy based on the value of frog futures.

Of course, some pieces of Steinbeck’s writing don’t age well. He uses racial terms that would be unacceptable today (“Wops and Chinamen and Polaks”), although to be fair, I think he’s attempting to describe the variety of the people of Monterey — he isn’t being derogatory (although I was uncomfortable with how he writes Lee Chong’s dialogue; perhaps not considered out-of-bounds in the 1940s, but certainly not okay today).

I do love Steinbeck’s writing. He can be beautifully descriptive, and also terribly funny just by virtue of the words he uses:

He can kill anything for need but he could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.

Describing a changing moment in a tidepool:

A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil and lovely and murderous again.

Small moments made me laugh:

“Henri loves boats but he’s afraid of the ocean.”

“What’s he want a boat for then?” Hazel demanded.

“He likes boats,” said Doc. “But suppose he finishes his boat. Once it’s finished people will say, ‘Why don’t you put it in the water?’ Then if he puts it in the water, he’ll have to go out in it, and he hates the water. So you see, he never finishes the boat — so he doesn’t ever have to launch it.”

And then there’s the time when Mack and the boys manage to restore an old truck just enough to get it running, but with small problems, like the fact that it can only make it up a hill if they go in reverse.

I am truly glad that I read Cannery Row, and I so appreciate the Classics Club Spin challenge that got me to finally take the book off the shelf and give it a try.

I would like to read more by John Steinbeck in the future. So far, besides Cannery Row, I’ve read East of Eden and Of Mice and Men (both very, very long ago) and Tortilla Flat, and I know I should read The Grapes of Wrath at some point too.

Do you have any favorite Steinbeck books? Please let me know if you have recommendations!

Today’s Cannery Row in Monterey

Who knew? There was a movie of Cannery Row released in the 1980s!