Thursday, May 25, 2017

Cannery Row

While getting infused with Rituxan the other day, I read John Steinbeck's 1945 novel "Cannery Row," a work I was vaguely familiar with but had never read.

I was familiar with it in part because Steinbeck and Monterey (the setting for "Cannery Row") had been important in my youth, he as a writer who seemed to capture the essence of life and people on California's Central Coast and Monterey as the place where so much life-changing experience occurred when I was 18 or 19.

I knew somehow of Ed Ricketts who was the inspiration for the character of Doc in the novel. It's hard to say how I had any knowledge of Ricketts, but years ago, I spent a day at the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, and I suspect there was a display that described him and his laboratory in Monterey -- and how it was important to Steinbeck.

I didn't finish reading the novel at the infusion center on Monday, but I took the book with me and finished it while waiting for Ms Ché to have her sonogram at the radiology center yesterday (she's developing edema in her legs, something new and needing monitoring along with various heart checks to see if she's developing congestive heart failure, the cause of her mother's and grandfather's deaths.)

I confess, I shed a little tear at parts of Steinbeck's story of these wayward souls on the margins of society and the edge of the ocean. Oh yes, it was quite a moving tale, and I have no doubt that Steinbeck intended to draw a tear or two from his readers. Tears of recognition, sympathy, empathy.

According to what I've read about it, Steinbeck himself was trying to get back some of the joy he felt when he lived in Pacific Grove, next door to Cannery Row in (New)Monterey during the Depression.

The novel was a way for him to recapture some of the spirit of the time and the place and the people and to bring some joy back to his increasingly complicated life.

Fame and fortune had done so much for him, but it had changed his life in ways he could not have anticipated-- and not entirely for the better.

What I noticed first was the structure of the story. The novel consists of a series of mostly very short chapters which are constructed as stand-alone short--short stories strung together like the firecrackers from Lee Chong's which figure toward the end of the novel. It's quite a trick, not easy to pull off at all, but Steinbeck seems clear about what he wants to do with this story and how he wants to tell the tale. Quick glimpses, vignettes, sketches, some quite elaborate, but others merely outlines and shadows.

I could see a lot of it in my mind's eye, though the image wasn't much like my memories of Monterey. Not at all, really. This was a very different, colder, and surprisingly darker Monterey. In fact, most of the story seems to take place in twilight or darkness. My memories of the place are mostly sunshine and fog, oh my the fog, and the chill that comes with it, even in high summer.

Or especially so.

In Steinbeck's telling, there's little daylight, and no fog at all. Seems impossible. You can't live anywhere on California's Central Coast and not be immersed in morning and evening fog, sometimes all day fog, fog that set the pattern for your days and nights, fog that's sometimes very comforting but sometimes very annoying, too, as the eaves and the trees will drip and drip and drip, and a chill will grab hold of you and penetrate deep into your body. After a warm and sunny day, you may suddenly shiver with that fog-brought chill, wondering how the warmth of the day can vanish so completely and quickly as the sun lowers in the west over the sea, and the fog rolls in flowing over the coastal hills and filling the little valleys where lettuce and strawberries and artichokes are grown.

Sometimes here in New Mexico, high in the mountains, there will be morning fogs like those on California's Central Coast, and for some moments when the fog comes down like that, I'm puzzled about where I am, because here in this little valley in New Mexico's central highlands, I'm often reminded of the little valleys along California's Central Coast. No, there's no ocean here, but there are plenty of evocations, and they say that many long years ago, a "warm shallow sea" penetrated deep into what's now New Mexico, and there might have been fogs from that vanished sea that swathed the region's dinosaurs in dripping mists.

Indeed, our location now was the shore of a lake not that long ago, a lake the size -- and about the elevation -- of Lake Tahoe. Fogs easily could have arisen.

But they don't figure in Steinbeck's tale of Cannery Row in Monterey c. 1938 or 39.

It's not really clear when the story takes place, but it's almost certainly before the War, during the latter portion of the Depression.

The characters are familiar types to me, Mack and Doc and Hazel and Dora and The Girls and Lee Chong, and even the dog Darling. These are roughnecks for the most part, not a refined and high-faluting one among them, though some like Doc and Dora are clearly closer to the ideal of the era than others.

Marginal people at the time, maybe particularly in California, had a rough go of it, and whether they lived or died mattered not at all to their betters, the self-appointed and self assured leading lights of communities and cities and the state itself. California was for the winners. Still is.

So here are the characters of Cannery Row, flotsam washed up on the shores of Monterey, lucky to be there, happy to be there, living out their simple-complicated lives, getting by as best they can with little or no money, stealing, swapping, borrowing or creating what they need from the throwaways and debris around them. There's a lesson for the rest of us if we could learn it, as some have tried  in times past and more are trying now.

These rough people in rough times live lives with more humanity and joy, it seems to me, than many of our well-off modern people can imagine, and they might read the story now and believe it is all fantasy, a never-was fantasy.

But it was more real than they can imagine. I knew these people, some of them. I still do. They were my neighbors when I was growing up in California, and they are my neighbors now in rural New Mexico. There may be more broken down cowboys in these parts, but no one in "Cannery Row" would be out of place in my adopted home.

I'm one of them.


  1. ...

    Fifteen or twenty years ago, my preferred read was a history of California or New York, or perhaps a descriptive travelogue of the English countryside from the nineteenth century. I gave little homage to fiction as an art form. Mrs. Junior, OTOH, is and has always been a dragon to whom one must throw vast quantities of fiction to be consumed in her holy fire. Of course, I have always enjoyed the American short story. I now read Irish fiction, Southern fiction, and others.

    It was about ten years ago, I got this righteous little injury to my left shin, (already with bad circulation from a college accident,) which didn't want to close up. Finally my doctor prescribed a Duoderm bandage which promoted moist healing. I was off of work for at least two weeks.

    In a literary sense, it was the best two weeks of my life. One of the books I read was Cannery Row. I was utterly captivated and enjoyed it immensely. To me the easiest character to understand was Doc because I grew up around eccentric characters from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and hung out around their beach campus all of my life. The description of Mack and his merry band of vagabonds mostly resembled people that I had known in my youth. Nobody ever succeeded in making this lifestyle last a lifetime. But times were different in the 1930s.

    I would have loved to see the manifold proliferation of ocean life that was La Jolla in the 1930s. Max Miller had already bemoaned the picked over status in 1949. I first visited the Cove in 1967. I was an avid skin diver until my twentieth birthday and somewhat beyond. I could dive alone at any beach in La Jolla and surface dive thirty feet.

    But I mostly enjoyed the book on a human level. The lovable cast of misfits seemed to me to be the kind of people that were worthy and deserving of a good life. Right down to the guy who worked at a bar and poured all of the unfinished drinks into a mystical brew for the brothers to imbibe.

    I went on to read Tortilla Flats only understanding it on a literal level, not seeing the deep spiritual and historic fables and allegory woven into its simple text.

    I wish there were an enormous library of these exciting and memorable novelettes. But alas, they are few.

    1. Essentially, I couldn't put it down, it was that good. The first Steinbeck I remember reading was "Travels with Charley" when it came out. I was barely a teenager. I thought it was great.

      I went back and read his famous works, "Grapes of Wrath," "Of Mice and Men," or tried to, but they were too strong for me at the time. I learned to appreciate them later.

      For whatever reason, I didn't read "Cannery Row" till recently, but boy was I glad I did. Glad you liked it too.

      I've been getting out a lot of the older fiction we have in our (home) library -- "Cannery Row" had been sitting on the shelf for years, unread. There's a lot more where that came from.

      Maybe I'll get through more of it before shuffling off this mortal coil...;-)

  2. I'm sure you already know this...

    But just in case you forgot. I imagine that you have already read it. Steinbeck published a sequel to Cannery Row in 1952 or so called, Sweet Thursday. Go on-line with your library card and ask the Albuquerque Public Library to send it to your local branch. I don't know exactly why I just read it. I should have reread the first book before I did the spoiler thing with the sequel.

    1. We've probably got "Sweet Thursday" among our rooms and boxes full of books here and in California. Might take forever to find tho.

      We're kind of focused on "counterculture literature" at the moment. Ms. Ché is thinking of reworking the draft of her Epic Novel based on her Wild Life Back When.