My favorite aspect of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was the way he took frequent breaks from the Joads’ journey to offer glimpses at the lives and characters of those they met along the way from Oklahoma to California (I was one of those who understood and appreciated the turtle). While Cannery Row doesn’t fall into quite the same every-other-chapter pattern for those tangential character sketches, they help to create a more complex portrait of a community comprised of social outcasts.
Cannery Row is home to a brothel, a country store of sorts, a warehouse inhabited by a small community of vagrants, and Doc with his laboratory where he collects and ships specimens for dissection and experimentation across the country. The only thing everyone seems to agree upon is that Doc is a great guy but when Mac and the others living in the ware-less warehouse decide they want to do something for Doc, their ideas never seem to go as planned with destructive if not disastrous results.
The characters are what make and break Cannery Row. I loved the brief time spent with the likes of minor characters such as Mary Talbot who manages to turn what she has into what she wants. Doc might well be my favorite character because, as all the characters agree, he is the most understanding and compassionate, willing to look past his neighbors’ faults but not to the point where he’ll let them walk all over him. By society’s standards, he may be an odd duck in his occupation and hobbies, but he manages to keep true to himself while helping those around him.
At the same time, much of the story comes back to Mac and the shifting group he surrounds himself with. Everyone in that group can and does work when they need the money but they only bother when there is an immediate need (and not always then). They’re entirely believable but frustratingly so. They remind me a bit too much of some people I know for me to view them objectively. They do have some rotten luck but they also fail to prepare for anything that isn’t what they want and/or hope will happen. Sometimes they can talk themselves out of a bad situation; sometimes they only manage to make it worse. They are a force to be reckoned with but that force can also be rather self-destructive. It would probably be giving them too much credit to suggest that they learn from their mistakes; instead, it becomes clear that those around them have adapted to protect themselves the calamity Mac and his friends can and frequently do bring in their wake.
Steinbeck, like Faulkner and Hemingway, is one of those writers whose work I go back and forth on. I will love some of their work and absolutely hate others with very little in between. I loved The Sound and the Fury but hated Absalom, Absalom! (it’s one of the few books I actively stopped reading and I’m not looking forward to tackling it again when I have to finish it for my 1001 Books to Read Before You Die challenge). The Grapes of Wrath will probably always be my favorite Steinbeck novel (though The Moon is Down is a close second). While Cannery Row is far from those favorites, I enjoyed it more than To a God Unknown which didn’t feel finished in any sense of the word; Cannery Row is just enough and I would have enjoyed it more if not for problems related to personal associations (but those kinds of unfortunate connections happen).