Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Book Description:
Steinbeck's tough yet charming portait of people on the margin of society, dependent on one another for both physical and emotional survival.

Published in 1945, Cannery Row focuses on the acceptance of life as it is: both the exuberance of community and the loneliness of the individual.

Drawing on his memories of the real inhabitants of Monterey, California, Steinbeck interweaves the stories of Doc, Henri, Mack and his boys, and the other characters in this world where only the fittest survive, to create a novel that is at once one of his most humorous and most poignant works. In her thoughtful introduction, Shillinglaw shows how it expresses, both in style and theme, much that is essentially Steinbeck: "scientific detachment, empathy toward the lonely and depressed...and, at the darkest level...the terror of isolation and nothingness."

This is one of those classic books I've heard about forever yet had never gotten around to reading. A short novel (less than 200 pages), this is Steinbeck's ode to Monterey, California, set in the 1940's. At first it comes across as a group of antitodes and vignettes about the various low life characters that live along Cannery Row. As is customary to Steinbeck, they are the down and out types, the dregs of society. They all have their foibles and problems, yet in Cannery Row we like them. They may be drunks or whores or homeless types, but they have endearing qualities about them that make up for their shortcomings.

The story centers around Doc, a marine biologist, who is the only really normal character in the book (on the surface.) Everyone loves Doc and a group of men that are virtually homeless decided they want to throw him a party. Things get out of hand and the surprise party winds up starting without Doc (at his lab) and the place is trashed. Doc comes back to find a mess on his hands. They all meant well but as soon as they start drinking, they just lose their focus, not unlike today's drug addicts who can't get their acts together when they're doing drugs, but always have good intentions and mean well and tell themselves they're going to kick their habit. Steinbeck's people here are just existing in their own little tidepool. They don't have big dreams and aspirations, they just are trying to survive day to day without really doing much of anything.

All in all, this was a short little snapshot of life in Monterey when life was a lot simpler. I enjoyed reading this, since I was visiting Monterey at the time I was reading it. Steinbeck has a simple straighforward way of writing. He's not overly wordy and bogged down with details. It's a simple life he describes, but you get the point and feel of it. At times the book was humorous (Mack and his denizens) and other times it was a bit poignant (will Doc always be alone?) A worthwhile book that won't take much time to read, but a good example of Steinbeck's style and descriptions of the good natured but hopeless riff raff along the water.


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