I realised a while ago that there was a John Steinbeck book on the list that I hadn’t read but missed the chance to get it out and it’s taken me ages to find it there again (because it’s been lent out to other people, presumably, not because I forgot where it was). I’m a big fan of Steinbeck and of 20th Century American fiction in general (though not in absolution) so I’ve been looking forward to this, and (although I love the epic-ness of Grapes of Wrath) I was quite glad that Cannery Row turned out to be a collection of touching and sometimes funny vignettes.
In contrast to, for example, Upton Sinclair’s the Jungle, the narrative does not focus on the eponymous Californian canneries: instead it gives a snapshot of the lives of the people who live on the row who choose not to work there – drunks, prostitutes, shopkeepers. The vignettes revolve around Doc, a marine biologist. As Doc examines and studies his various collection of sea creatures, so we study the inhabitants of Cannery Row, and watch as they, in turn, study Doc. Doc is held up as something of a hero to the others – and they, in turn, decide they want to throw him a party to show their appreciation (which predictably doesn’t go to plan).
I think I read in the introduction that Steinbeck wanted a change after the politics of Grapes of Wrath and wanted to find a new way of writing. While he does this to an extent in Cannery Row, he continues to create characters who are both likeable and flawed, human and identifiable. It actually took me a few days to get through this, which surprised me because it’s only 140 or so pages long, so that isn’t a reflection of how much I enjoyed it or the length of it and I’d definitely recommend it.