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The Day After Lousy Wednesday
on 20 February 2016
John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” was written just after the end of World War II and deals with events which supposedly took place during the depression years of the 1930s. “Sweet Thursday” was written in 1954 as a sequel to “Cannery Row” and updates the story to tell what happened to some of the characters from the original novel in the post-war years of the 1940s. (The title refers to a particularly pleasant day in the lives of some of the characters, "Sweet Thursday" being the day after “Lousy Wednesday”).
There have been a few changes to Cannery Row during the intervening decade. The canneries which gave the area its name have all closed; they survived the lean years of the Great Depression but could not survive what should have been the boom years of the war, as an increase in demand for fish led to overfishing and the collapse of the fish stocks. Dora, the owner of the Bear Flag Restaurant (euphemism for brothel), has died and it is now run by her sister Flora. The storekeeper Lee Chong has sold his business to Joseph and Mary Rivas. Contrary to what one might think, the phrase “Joseph and Mary” refers not to a married couple but to a single, male, individual. Eccentric names seem to be a feature of the book; another male character is named Hazel, and Flora is better known by the nickname “Fauna”.
As in “Cannery Row”, one of the principal characters is Doc, the eccentric marine biologist whom Steinbeck based upon his friend Ed Ricketts, returning to the area after wartime service. (Since publication of the original novel, Ricketts had been killed in a road accident). In the original book Doc was a confirmed bachelor, but now his friends from the Palace Flophouse (a shack which has been turned into a home by a group of local down-and-outs) have decided that he needs a woman in his life and engineer a romance between Suzy, one of Fauna’s girls from the Bear Flag, whom they feel has “too much of the lady” about her to succeed in the prostitution business. A sub-plot deals with another scheme of the Palace Flophouse boys to ensure that Doc becomes their new landlord following Lee Chong’s departure.
Sequels, whether in the cinema or in literature, can be a difficult thing to get right, and in “Sweet Thursday” Steinbeck seems to fall into a trap which he generally managed to avoid in “Cannery Row”, that of sentimentalising poverty. In earlier works such as “The Grapes of Wrath”, “Of Mice and Men” and “The Pearl” he had written movingly of the difficulties and hardships confronting the poor and dispossessed, but here he comes close to extolling the lot of an unemployed, homeless bum as one of ease and plenty, forgetting that a life of idleness usually needs a considerable income to support it. Girls like Suzy generally drift into prostitution because of some deep-rooted problems in their lives, and a contrived romance with as chaotic and individual like Doc is not necessarily the answer to those problems.
Unlike “Cannery Row”, which combined comedy with some more serious themes, “Sweet Thursday” is more of a pure comedy, and there are some very funny scenes, but overall I felt that it did not really live up to the standard Steinbeck had set in its predecessor.