Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck

In many regards, John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row reads like a re-write of his first major commercial success, Tortilla Flat. Tortilla Flat (1935) described the shennanigans and goings-on of a bumbling group of male friends, or paisanos (meaning countrymen). Steinbeck was later mortified to discover that many contemporary readers of Tortilla Flat considered his characters no more than loveable bums.

Worse still, Steinbeck was accused of racial stereotyping, basically depicting Mexicans as inherently lazy and stupid. This, of course, had not been the author’s intention. Rather, Steinbeck believed he was providing his readers with sympathetic portraits of personal friends. For the most part, Tortilla Flat reads like a Quixotic comedy.

In Cannery Row, which replicates the same idea of a bumbling group of male friends, it seems clear that Steinbeck, like most writers, had a basic literary theme that was stuck in his head and to which he would return to again and again (Cannery Row even has a sequel, Sweet Thursday, published in 1954).

Plot Synopsis of Cannery Row

Cannery Row is light on plot and relies more on colourful portraits of its idiosyncratic characters. The novel is set during the Great Depression in a district called Cannery Row, with its main industry being sardine fisheries.

Mack, a layabout who is also the leader of a group of local bums, holds a party for his friend Doc, a marine biologist. The party, which is supposed to be a nice surprise for Doc, soon gets out of control. When Doc finally arrives home to his Western Biological Laboratory (late, due to being held up), the party has caused much ruin to his home and much of his marine biology equipment. Doc is so furious that he takes a few swings at Mack.

Mack soon realises his error, and sets about trying to make amends. He starts organising a second party, this time making sure that it is a success. Doc finds out about this ahead of time, and takes precautions to make sure none of his equipment is ruined.

Weaknesses in Cannery Row

As it stands, Cannery Row is one of Steinbeck’s weaker novels. It comes after a long line of remarkable literary successes such as In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and The Moon is Down (1942). Cannery Row sees Steinbeck repeating himself, by reviving the feel-good, Quixotic comedy of Tortilla Flat (not one of his better efforts to begin with).

Masterpieces like Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath derive their greatness from a pressing sense of urgency and purpose. Cannery Row lacks these qualities, and is rather an exercise in style over substance. The novel depends on frequent flights of literary fancy, and the people and situations it describes are basically unreal, more a product of the author’s imagination than a set of first hand observations about the human condition.

After the highs of In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row is a let down. By the mid forties, Steinbeck had started to repeat himself.

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck. Published by Penguin Books. ISBN-13: 978-0142000687

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