The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'Cannery Row' and 'Sweet Thursday'

These two books might well be my favourite John Steinbec stories.  There’s nothing big or epic about them, just a sweet, simple tale about the kind of people who might well have lived in Cannery Row before and just after the Second World War.  And yet, with Steinbeck, it’s always more than merely ‘sweet and simple’ with his ability to transform people’s daily, mundane lives into fascinating ones.  It was a while after reading ‘Cannery Row’ that I realised ‘Sweet Thursday’ was a sequel to it.  

Written before the War, ‘Cannery Row’ is set during the Depression, and is, in Steinbeck’s words, ‘ a poem, 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, honky-tonks, restaurants and whore-houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flop-houses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘Whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.

Steinbeck based the characters on real-life people he’d met and knew in the area, most notably Ed Ricketts, whom the character of Doc was based on.  Doc operates the Western Biological Laboratory, the one person all of Cannery Row wants to do something for as a ‘thank you’ for all the things he ends up doing for them – the ‘good guy’ they believe deserves good fortune more than any of them.  Doc seems happy and settled enough in his bachelor life, collecting marine specimens, preparing them for sale, listening to classical music, entertaining lady friends …

And yet, I got the impression that the ‘down and outs’, Mack and the boys, are actually more content, more happy and settled in their lives than Doc.  Steinbeck describes them as ‘the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic Monterey where men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them … In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the seagulls of Cannery Row … Mack and the boys … walk around the poison, step over the noose, while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums.

At the end of the day, Doc is on his own.  No matter how many people care for him, when night falls and he shuts the door, he is on his own.  Mack and the boys, for all their lack of material ‘stuff’, have each other.  Their comfort is their camaraderie, the human touch … riches indeed.

It seems an easy enough thing – a surprise party for Doc as a show of gratitude.  And yet, anything that can go wrong, does.  I wanted to reach in the pages and set Mack and the boys on the right path to make the party work; I was groaning aloud at their ‘mistakes’, so easily avoided.  But that’s what the story is about – life.  No matter how much you plan, there’s always the chance things won’t quite work out.

The reason this book is my favourite – Steinbeck’s humour shines through.  As in life, there is sadness, which takes the form of a couple of suicides; a boy with mental problems and no future; a dead girl … Yet there is an undercurrent of happiness that runs through the book.  Again, like life, you can’t help but feel, and you want to believe, that it’ll all work out and everything will be alright.

I love Steinbeck’s descriptions; they always seem so effortless …

The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn’t very long, but in its course it has everything a river should have. It rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, is dammed to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamore, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. In the winter it becomes a torrent, a mean little fierce river, and in the summer it is a place for children to wade in and for fishermen to wander in. Frogs blink from its banks and the deep ferns grow beside it. Deer and foxes come to drink from it secretly in the morning and evening, and now and then a mountain lion, crouched flat, laps its water. The farms of the rich little valley back up the river and take its water for the orchards and the vegetables. The quail call beside it and the wild doves come whistling in at dusk. Raccoons pace its edges looking for frogs. It’s everything a river should be.

Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the grey time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. No automobiles are running then. The street is silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries. It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest. Cats drip over the fences and slither like syrup over the ground to look for fish-heads. Silent early-morning dogs parade majestically, picking and choosing judiciously whereon to pee. The seagulls come flapping in to sit on the cannery roofs, to await the day of refuse. They sit on the roof peaks shoulder to shoulder. From the rocks near the Hopkins Marine Station comes the barking of sea-lions like the baying of hounds. The air is cool and fresh …

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men – kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling – are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest – sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest – are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

‘Sweet Thursday’ is set after the War with basically the same characters that were in ‘Cannery Row’, with a few gone and a few new ones, including the brilliantly named Joseph and Mary Rivas – one person!  Written in the early 1950s, it shows how Steinbeck has grown as a writer.  But it still retains the same ‘feeling’ as ‘Cannery Row’.  Like ‘Cannery Row’, the story mainly revolves around Doc and how he’s changed since returning from the War …

But the discontent was still there … Whisky lost its sharp delight and the first long pull of beer from a frosty glass was not the joy it had been. He stopped listening in the middle of an extended story. He was not genuinely glad to see a friend … What am I thinking? What do I want? Where do I want to go? There would be wonder in him, and a little impatience, as though he stood outside and looked in on himself through a glass shell … Doc thought he was alone in his discontent, but he was not. Everyone on the Row observed him and worried about him. Mack and the boys worried about him. And Mack said to Fauna, “Doc acts like a guy that needs a dame.”

Basically, ‘Sweet Thursday’ is a love story.    The ‘dame’ in question whom everyone, except Doc and the dame, believes is the one for him isn’t a high-class, highly educated young lady, but a young woman who doesn’t believe she’s good enough for someone like Doc.  Her growing awareness of her own self-worth is believably written.  And Doc wrestling with himself – wondering why he isn’t satisfied with life anymore, stubbornly refusing to admit that being in love and accepting it isn’t a betrayal to himself – is also credible and, again, well written.

Again, there is humour as, not only Mack and the boys, but the entire Row feverishly plan a party for Doc while keeping him in the dark about its true purpose … And the humour is laced with melancholy, just as life is.

I like this passage because, for me, it describes perfectly the ‘ugly’ days …

Some Days are born ugly. From the very first light they are no damn good, whatever the weather, and everybody knows it. No one knows what causes this, but on such a day people resist getting out of bed and set their heels against the day. When they are finally forced out by hunger or job they find that the day is just as lousy as they knew it would be.

On such a day it is impossible to make a good cup of coffee, shoe-strings break, cups leap from the shelf by themselves and shatter on the floor, children ordinarily honest tell lies, and children ordinarily good unscrew the tap handles of the gas range and lose the screws and have to be spanked. This is the day the cat chooses to have kittens and housebroken dogs wet on the parlour rug.

I’ll finish with this one …

The seer said, “I saw a mermaid last night. You remember, there was a half-moon and a thin drifting mist. There was colour in the night, not like the black and grey and white of an ordinary night. Down at the end of the beach a shelf of rock reaches out, and the tide was low so that there was a smooth bed of kelp. She swam to the edge and then churned her tail, like a salmon leaping a rapid. And then she lay on the kelp bed and made dancing figures with her white arms and hands. She didn’t go away until the rising tide covered the kelp bed.”

“Was she a dream? Did you imagine her?”

“I don’t know. But if I did I’m proud that I could imagine anything so beautiful.”

I shall remember that, whenever I imagine anything beautiful, to be proud that I am able to.