Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

There is no golden afternoon next to the cliff. When the sun went over it at about two o'clock a whispering shade came to the beach. The sycamores rustled in the afternoon breeze. Little water snakes slipped down to the rocks and then gently entered the water and swam along through the pool, their heads held up like little periscopes and a tiny wake spreading behind them. A big trout jumped in the pool. The gnats and mosquitoes which avoid the sun came out and buzzed over the water. All of the sun bugs, the flies, the dragonflies, the wasps, the hornets, went home. And as the shadow came to the beach, as the first quail began to call, Mack and the boys awakened. The smell of the chicken stew was heartbreaking. Hazel had picked a fresh bay leaf from a tree by the river and he had dropped it in. The carrots were in now. Coffee in its own can was simmering on its own rock, far enough from the flame so that it did not boil too hard. Mack awakened, started up, stretched, staggered to the pool, washed his face with cupped hands, hacked, spat, washed his mouth, broke wind, tightened his belt, scratched his legs, combed his wet hair with his fingers, drank from the jug, belched and sat down by the fire. "By God that smells good," he said.
I should've read this in high school, back when living out that scene was my daydream and greatest aspiration. That outdoor beatnik lifestyle, the zen-like indifference to materialism, poverty and public image, that's what I got from Cannery Row. This is a street (like, for real) in Monterey, California lined with sardine canneries and, by Steinbeck's telling, a very respectable whorehouse, Lee Chong's grocery, and a marine biology lab, populated by a close-knit community of starving artists, care-free bums, and assorted destitute but kind-hearted individuals.

Much of the book is based on Steinbeck's own experience in Monterey, and I know that at least one character, Doc, the marine biologist, is based on a close friend of his. Doc, a man after my own heart, has a passion for beer, octopi, Gregorian chanting, and women, and is a well-loved and well-known figure in the small neighborhood. Mack and the boys are a kindly gang of bums whose MO is to obtain and imbibe whiskey, or anything they can get. Mack is brilliant, and through his shrewd dealings they manage to get a house (The Palace Flophouse and Grill), and spend most of the novel trying to do something nice to repay Doc for all of his kindness. But most of their good intentions go awry for the same reasons that they became bums in the first place: inability or disinterest in worrying over anything other than pleasure and friendship.

The novel is really a collection of short stories centered around Cannery Row, telling the individual dramas and comedies of its residents. Doc and Mack and the boys are the most recurring and pivotal characters, and really the only drawn-out plotline. Just the stories on their own are wonderful for their humor and the quirks and tics of each resident. Collected, they're all a testament to the vibrance and ingenuity that thrives in a place familiar with poverty. The closest the book comes to philosophizing is Doc's revelation that Mack and the boys are better off than most:
Doc said, "Look at them. There are your true philosophers, I think," he went on, "that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that ever will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else." This speech so dried out Doc's throat that he drained his beer glass. He waved two fingers in the air and smiled. "There's nothing like that first taste of beer," he said.
I don't think that could ever not be relevant. It fit in the 1940's, and it fits now. It was kind of a shock to go from John Updike's overwhelmingly complex, strikingly human Rabbit to Steinbeck's whimsical Doc and Mack, who are mostly simple and straightforward, sort of fleshed out personality traits and desires. I've been reading that Steinbeck's other works are much more serious, and not nearly as lighthearted, so I'm glad to have stared with this one. I found absolutely nothing to dislike about this book. It might not be a symbol-ridden, broad-reaching metaphor for the human condition, but it's beautifully nostalgic and simple, and makes me wish I lived in Monterey.

John Updike worked for The New Yorker at 25 and was a successful author by 27. John Steinbeck was first a chemist, an apprentice painter, hod-carrier (had to Wikipedia that one), estate caretaker, Big Sur surveyor, and itinerant fruit picker. Keep hope alive!

EDIT: I forgot to mention how much I love paperbacks that were printed before I was born. This one is about eight months older than me.

1 comment:

Padfoot and Prongs - Good Books Inc. said...

This was already on my 'to read' pile sitting next to me bed. After this review I think it might just make its way closer to the top! Excellent job!