In which Netty has a helluva lot of fun slumming it down on Canterbury Road – I mean, Cannery Row …

October 13, 2013


So one night after work, maybe a couple of years ago now, a bunch of us went out for a drink. Which subsequently became a lot of drinks, and ended up kicking way into the wee hours.  The next morning, fishing through my handbag, I chanced upon a torn-off receipt that had scrawled across it – in my own, rather wonky handwriting – the words “Canterbury Road”. Whereupon I recalled, in the murky depths of my memory bank, a conversation with a work pal (hi Corinna!) about a John Steinbeck novel of that name that I simply HAD to read, stat.

I filed it away for future reference, until the next time I was in my local bookshop. Browsing the titles in the Steinbeck section, I could not find the aforementioned “Canterbury Road” – however, there was a slim volume called “Cannery Row”. “Aha!”, I thought to myself. And, then, “Whoops!” ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy indeed … (http://www.kissthisguy.com/)

Confession time: I’ve never actually read any Steinbeck. I once took out a copy of The Grapes of Wrath from the library, but I don’t think I even got around to reading the first page. I had an idea of Steinbeck being an ornery old writer who specialised in really depressing tomes on the life and times of poor American folk trying to survive various world wars and the Great Depression. Uh, no thanks.

Turns out I was only half right – in this case at least. Because while Cannery Row is indeed set in the Great Depression, there is very little depressing about it. In fact, it’s one of the more humorous books I’ve read of late. But more of that later.

The Grapes of Wrath, or maybe Of Mice And Men, is the logical gateway into Steinbeck’s work – and probably most likely first encountered as a long-ago lit student. But I’m glad that Cannery Row was my introduction to this most revered man of American letters (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 – four years before his death in 1968 – for his life’s work of 27 novels, non-fiction works and short story collections). First published in 1945 (its sequel, Sweet Thursday, followed nine years later), Cannery Row is set in Monterey, California  (Steinbeck, a Salinas native, grew up in the vicinity and briefly lived in the city). Dedicated to his good friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts (the inspiration for the central character Doc), the preface cunningly states: “The people, places, and events in this book are, of course, fictions and fabrications”. But he would say that, wouldn’t he? Writers – who can trust ‘em?

Cannery Row (described in the opening line as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream”) was inspired by Ocean View Avenue (it was later renamed in the novel’s honour) – the hub of seaside Monterey’s sardine canneries, a major employer of its townspeople and itinerants – and the people who worked and lived there. The “characters” (ahem), and their relationship to one another, adroitly unfold in the initial chapters – Doc, a marine biologist who runs and lives at Western Biological Laboratory and is the heart and soul of the town (“Everyone who thought of him thought next, ‘I really must do something nice for Doc’ … “); Lee Chong, the Chinese proprietor of the local grocery, to whom almost all of the locals is indebted – and in debt; the big-hearted and community-minded Dora Flood, madam of the local whorehouse, the coyly named Bear Flag Restaurant; and the lovable, well-meaning hobos Mack and the boys (Hazel, Eddie, Hughie and Jones – later augmented by a much-loved pointer bitch called Darling), who – courtesy of the long-suffering Lee Chong – reside at the “Palace Flophouse” and eke out an existence any way that they can.

In the overarching spirit of everyone in the town wanting to do “something nice” for Doc, Mack and the boys hit on a plan to throw a party for him – which, unbeknownst to Doc, they plan as a surprise at Western Biological while he is out of town, collecting specimens at nearby La Jolla. But their plan doesn’t quite work out as originally intended, leaving Mack and the boys keen to make amends – and waiting for the right opportunity to do so.

It almost goes without saying that Steinbeck is a beautiful writer who handles prose as delicately and skilfully as a surgeon, with remarkable turns of phrase spilling off every page. To wit: “…Casting about in Hazel’s mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum. (His) mind was choked with uncatalogued exhibits … everything was thrown together like fishing tackle in the bottom of a rowboat”. Or: “Two generations of Americans knew more about the (Model T) Ford coils than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars”. Or: “Mack awakened, started up, stretched, staggered to the pool, washed his face with cupped hands, hacked, spat, washed out his mouth, broke wind, tightened his belt, scratched his legs, combed his wet hair with his fingers, drank from the jug, belched and sat down by the fire”.

Read it and weep – as far as writing goes, it doesn’t get much better than that. And it is also – unexpectedly and most cleverly – funny, its pages dripping with subtle humour.  

In short, Cannery Row was an absolute delight to read – I don’t think I will enjoy a book more this year. It might even soften me up for another attempt at The Grapes of Wrath one of these days. Certainly Steinbeck is an author whose work I will need to explore in depth sooner rather than later. I’m glad it was recommended to me, I’m glad I drunkenly made note of it at the time and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. Moral of the story: always carry a pen – and a scrap of paper – when you go out imbibing, or otherwise. You never know what gems it may throw up at you the next day.  





  1. I did a Grapes of Wrath piece in my HSC Speech and Drama exam. All I remember is ‘Ma was heavy, but not fat.’ Probably how my own daughter will describe me after I’m dead. Let’s hope any way. x

  2. And I’ll give Cannery Row a look.

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