Cannery Row: A Chevron Ross Book Review

By May 10, 2024No Comments

Few novelists can paint pictures with words while maintaining a good narrative pace. John Steinbeck, best known for The Grapes of Wrath, displays this talent most winningly in his short novel Cannery Row.

Steinbeck takes us on a tour of a humble fishing and cannery village in California. His story is loosely structured around a bunch of drunks who decide to throw a surprise party for Doc, a local biologist who makes his living gathering marine specimens for medical labs. Mack and the boys, as they’re known, live in a storehouse owned by Lee Chong, a Chinese grocer who somehow stays in business despite the fact that his customers—particularly Mack and the boys—have owed him money for years and will never be able to repay it.

It is these and many other characters who make Cannery Row a reader’s delight. The Malloys, a married couple, live in an abandoned boiler and make money by renting out its pipes as sleeping quarters for the cannery workers. Henri, a self-styled artist, has spent ten years building a boat from scrap materials with no intentions of ever launching it. A skater rolls around a roof twenty-fours a day in his effort to break a record. Cannery Row residents are so accustomed to each other’s peculiarities that they take them in stride.

There’s a wonderful off-hand deftness to Steinbeck’s character portraits. Hazel, one of the boys, survived reform school thanks to his ingrained ignorance. “Reform schools,” the author explains, “are supposed to teach viciousness and corruption, but Hazel didn’t pay enough attention.” A kind of benign maliciousness governs Mack and the boys. They try to raise money by gathering frog specimens on the assumption that Doc will buy them and thereby finance his own party. The expedition becomes a hilarious adventure involving a borrowed car running on gas paid for with borrowed money that leads to a mechanical breakdown and a drinking binge. As for the party, it devolves into a disaster that sets the stage for the novel’s turning point.

Be warned that the dialogue contains a few obscenities and occasional profanity, which is why I have limited my rating to four stars. If you can read beyond these offenses, you’ll see why John Steinbeck’s literary reputation remains untarnished after almost a hundred years.

Featured by Chevron Ross

Follow these links for more about the Chevron Ross novels

     Weapons of Remorse       The Seven-Day Resurrection   The Samaritan’s Patient

Leave a Reply