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Clunky Immortality

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck

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Years ago, I got on a Steinbeck jag and ended up reading everything I could find by him, including his take on Sir Thomas Malory’s story of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. And since, I’ve picked up one or another of his books, re-read them, and thoroughly enjoyed them again. Until now, I’d not re-read Cannery Row.

The book has tumbled off bookstore shelves regularly, no doubt due to the passion literature instructors and their students have had for this story. And it even made it into movie form, a charmer of the same title, the story loosely built about Steinbeck’s and starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger.

What’s given this book its staying power? As I re-read it this time, and by modern creative writing standards, it’s more than a bit clunky. Still, one comparison that comes to mind, that pushes the book toward immortality: Cannery Row was a precursor to the later works of Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac. Maybe a bit about Cannery Row will explain.

The story takes place in Monterey, California, in a seedy area dedicated to canning fish. As you might expect, this is a dingy, bawdy place, peopled by a cast of characters of vague individual histories, mostly the down-and-outs of many other of Steinbeck’s books. I won’t indulge in naming names, but this bunch, whom we might crudely call bums, live in flophouses, some even in a cylindrical boiler. Their counterweights are a houseful of hookers, a Chinese storekeeper and, at the eye of the storm, Doc, a man of dim background, but a self-styled scientist interested in marine life.

This ungainly story has a tandem focus – two parties the bums throw for Doc, one a catastrophic mess that destroys his laboratory, and another threatening to do equal damage. So I repeat myself here: what enthralls about this story? 

My Answer: the charm and freedom that come with, as Kris Kristofferson sang, nothing left to lose. Compare these to Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and Kerouac’s Dean Moriarity et. al., and you see the indomitable spirit of the underprivileged. Of course, writers as far back as Victor Hugo have recognized the rough-hewn dignity of the underclass, their culturally closed ways, their takes on morality, even their unique gifts to language.

As I said, this book isn’t superlatively written, but it’s the soul of the book, of its characters, that continues to survive.

 

My rating 15 of 20 stars