“a gem, a stink, a grating noise” || Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a gem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. 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, honkey tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.

Goodreads call this “a book without much of a plot.” Which is true. And what little there is of a plot isn’t one you’d typically expect to find in a novel for adults – Mack and his buddies want to throw Doc a party. You can’t get much simpler than that. In the case of this short, beautiful novel, however, you don’t need anything more complex. The plot isn’t the point of the novel; the people are.

Cannery Row is a patchwork quilt of vignettes. A literary pointillism painting, if you will. Each chapter focuses on one or more people, and is often it’s own little, amusing story. In one, we learn of the beginning of the Palace Flophouse by Mack and his friends. In another, we meet an old man who is seen going to the ocean each dusk, and returning to wherever he came from each dawn. Yet another tells of Doc and his specimen collecting. At first, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the stories. Nothing to connect them. But then, as you go on, you start to see how each of these people touch the others’ lives in Cannery Row.

What’s most beautiful about this book are the people. They are no saints. Indeed, they are true representatives of fallen humanity, and some are quite proud of this fact, although they likely wouldn’t phrase it that way. Even Doc, who seems the most upstanding member of the community, may have a nasty secret of his own, which is implied in an off-handed way, but never spoken outright. Despite all this, you have to love them. Their sincerity as they try to do right by one another is wonderful, and your heart breaks when they fail, as they often do. But when they pick themselves up and try again, you hope that, this time, they will succeed. There’s a wonderful mercy that they extend to each other, particularly in the case of Doc.

I think that’s what ultimately endears this book to me. The mercy. It’s not just the mercy that the characters show, but the same can be said for the author himself. You can feel it, as he points out all their humorous foibles and failings. There’s never a sense of mockery, although it could have easily taken on that more vicious tone. The author truly cares for his characters, even when they’re being immensely stupid, and while how he portrays them is funny, it is never cruel.

So please, read it. It’s lovely. It’s amusing. It’s also very short, so there’s no reason not to pick it up as a last-minute, summer read.

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