Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck: A Review

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2003)

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2003)

After visiting Monterrey, California, I was entranced by the place,and immediately wished that there had been more time there than just enough for a stroll and a visit to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. The town seemed to have an interesting character and feel to it, and it’s on my list of places to re-visit in California, a state with which I am becoming increasingly entranced. And, of course, Monterrey is now a Steinbeck town. The gift shops and bookshops that I saw there featured all of his novels, and visitors pored over them, trying to remember what they were supposed to have read at school – and whether or not they had.

One of the things that I realised was that while I’ve read a fair number of works by Steinbeck, I had never read Cannery Row, the second of Steinbeck’s novels set in Monterrey (for that matter, I hadn’t yet read Tortilla Flat either, but that’s been remedied, and the review is coming). Since the Monterrey Bay Aquarium was built on the site of an old sardine cannery,though, I opted to read it first.

Cannery Row is a light, deft tale of life among the less-fortunate of Monterrey… the canning factory part-time workers, the squatters, the fishermen, the whores, the bums, and the drunks. The central figure around whom the narrative flows is Doc, a fairly young man who runs a biological supply company, provides odd jobs, and dispenses medical and veterinary advice, engages in unsuccessful love affairs, and tries to maintain some modicum of civilized life against the rough backdrop of life in Cannery Row. He consumes copious quantities of beer, bought from the local grocer Lee Chong, and tries, as does Lee, to maintain the right balance with his neighbours, including the proprietress of the local house of ill-fame, Dora, and the de facto leader of the local ne’er-do-wells, the well-intentioned but unfortunate Mack.

No matter their social standing, the characters are presented for the most part in a fashion which must have been fairly revolutionary to the readers of the mid-1940s: they are sympathetically shown to be real people, more than caricatures. They are shown to have dreams, even minor dreams; ambitions; failings and everything else that makes one human. The tone and depiction is more than a little bit reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s treatment of the poor in Les Misèrables.

However, unlike Hugo, Steinbeck is not a bombast, and he has a sense of humour. For that matter, his characters are often pragmatists who have a sense of humor, who make the best of making do, as it were. This makes the loosely connected stories of Cannery Row all the more enjoyable. This may be a Monterrey which, in our cynical and grasping age no longer exists, but it is nice to think, if only for a moment, that there might yet be echoes of it to be noticed on my next visit there, if only I have my eyes open. Five stars. Must read.

Originally reviewed 17 November 2011.

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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