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A Good Introduction to Steinbeck's Work
on 25 March 2016
John Steinbeck’s story of a down-at-heel neighbourhood in Monterey during the great depression is a story about people who have nothing but make do as best they can whilst never really improving their lot. Cannery Row is so named because of the sardine canneries which line it. It is a depressed area visited only by transients, cannery workers and fishermen eager to use the brothel which does brisk business of a night time.
Whilst this is essentially and ensemble piece, it is Mack and the boys, a group of down and outs who have had the good fortune to find themselves in a house recently vacated by a man committing suicide, that take centre stage. Around them a number of characters come in and out of the story including Mr Lee Chong, the local shop keeper (to whom almost everybody on Cannery Row owes money), Doc, who runs the Western Biological laboratory supplying sea creatures to universities and other interested parties and Dora, the madam of the brothel.
The story that Steinbeck tells doesn’t really have a neat beginning or end. Rather it is a snapshot of life for the people who live and work on the Row. In the case of Mack and the boys, they spend their day in the house that they have named the Palace Flophouse and Grill mulling over the big philosophical questions in life. They get by financially by one of them taking a pert-time bar job (not much money but plenty of alcohol that can be stolen) and, should the need arise, taking work at the canneries although this is considered below even bum’s such is the low impression of the work available there.
There is not much of a narrative to the first half of the story. As such it is just a window on to the lives of the characters on a day-by-day basis. This is not to say that it is not interesting and there are quite a few incidents which bring a smile to the face, although this is as much down to the skill of Steinbeck as an author as to the incidents themselves. It is when Mack and the boys decide they want to hold a party for Doc that the human interest picks up. It is a story of two parties. The first is a disaster and results in Mack and the boys becoming pariahs’ in the Row, the second is better planned and far more successful, leading to their rehabilitation.
Steinbeck’s story is one that challenges us to see things from the perspective of those living a hand to hand existence. The assumptions that poverty brings a level of unhappiness are not borne out by Mack and his crew, who seem perfectly happy with their existence, whilst those around them may not be happy with their lot but are silently resigned to it.
There is no question that the Row is a rough and sometimes violent place but there is a sense of camaraderie amongst those that live and make their living there. Once you get past the initial assumptions that come with these types of characters, it is clear that they are by no means the ruthless, morally corrupt caricatures that can be found in other books that deal with fringe society. Rather they a multi-facetted and flawed.
Whilst this is by no means Steinbeck’s best work, it is a worthy introduction to his work and is perfect for anybody who wants to dip their toes in to see whether they like it or not.