Cannery Row by John Steinbeck is a post World War I piece written with a mixture of humor and sadness about the lives of the residents of Cannery Row, a street in Monterey California. The story opens in a messy grocery store run by a Chinese man named Lee Chong. The one room store is described like so “while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply… clothes, food, both fresh and canned, liquor, tobacco, fishing equipment, machinery, boats, cordage, caps, pork chops, slippers, and a silk kimono” and last but certainly not least whiskey, could all be purchased. All of the whiskeys had names like “Old” Tennessee and were at least four months old. Our casts of characters have nicknamed the cheapest whiskey “Old Tennis Shoe”. Lee Chong is a good man who has the respect of the town. He manages to be respected by the entire town, while most of the town was in his financial debt. Debt would rise for many people who shopped at Lee’s, because he would trust consumers “until further trust would be ridiculous”.
From this beginning comes a cast of characters long and detailed, making the book and the street come alive. Turning to the next page was not a chore but a leap into another person’s woes and prospers. We meet men like Horace Abbeville who’s summarized tale is one that begins with debt, which Horace pays off with a shack he owned that housed fishmeal. After Lee Chong agreed to this arrangement, Mr. Abbeville sauntered up the long trails to this shack and shot him self in the head, leaving his wife and children sad and confused. Lee had not pressured Horace for payment he had only suspended Horace’s credit. Lee felt badly about Horace’s suicide and always watched out for Horace’s family.
Lee’s new ownership of Horace’s shack leads us to the introduction of Mack and the boys. Mack twists Lee’s arm to allow them to stay in the fishmeal shack now called the Palace Flophouse and Grill. Mack and the boys are men who very well could go off and do something with themselves. Instead, Mack and the boys would sit around drinking Old Tennis Shoe, getting into trouble whenever possible. They steal, cheat, work as little as possible and drink too much yet somehow they are genuinely likable good guys. Mack and the boys try to throw a party for Doc, a man the town collectively loves. Doc runs the Western Biological Laboratories and is the most responsible resident of Cannery Row.
Mack and the boys know that one frog equals 5 cents at the Doc’ laboratory. By collecting frog and getting paid by the lab the boys will be able to fund their party for Doc. The boys go out and get a lot of frogs get some money and throw a huge party for the Doc. In my favorite couple of chapters the boys get Lee Chong’s beat up old Model T Ford and go out to the ocean and try to score around one thousand frogs.
To go on with the detail of these chapters would make my book report some one hundred pages longer then I intend so I will shorten it up as much as possible. The trip is successful yielding the boys one thousand frogs, however one of the group did end up in jail. The trip also yielded a gallon of the best oak barrel preserved whiskey they have ever laid their lips around, one bitch pointer puppy, one chicken (they hit it with the Model T), one bag of carrots that fell off of a truck, one bag of onions that didn’t, and a solid good time with a man named the captain and his bitch pointer dog and puppies. When they get back to Cannery Row Mack and the boys hustled a frog for food deal with Lee Chong and attempted to throw a party for the Doc.
They had whiskey, not the good stuff because they irresponsibly drank it all the night before the party. They had streamers, steaks and frogs galore. As the party starts and hobos start wandering in and having fun and the steaks start to get eaten and the mayhem begins, Doc is nowhere to be found. Doc returns home after the party is over to find that three hundred dollars in glass has been broken, the record players crystal needle demolished, a few records smashed and all the animals like snakes, and tons of mice are running free out the door to sweet freedom. Mack’s good natured idea of throwing a party for Doc turns out to be another one of Mack’s mistakes and the reason for the Doc to level blows into Mack’s drunken face when he arrives.
We meet others in Cannery Row as well. A conscientious pimp, bouncer, nurse for a brothel called the Bear Flag. Dora the owner of the Bear Flag her “girls”, a term obviously used liberally because some of them are older then Dora. A troubled artist who makes beautiful boats that don’t ever sail and artwork out of peanut shells. We meet a retarded or at least very depressed and eager to please boy named Frankie who loves the Doc. And finally a man who stands or balances on poles for sport and record. Many more people are in this story and there are many more bends in the road for all of them but my simple advice to you is to read Cannery Row. The story is difficult to describe because it is like random snapshots of the many different characters at different stages of their lives. John Steinbeck masterfully captures the lives of the people, animals and places of Cannery Row in less then two hundred pages.
John Steinbeck’s image for this novel is a very complex string of stories. Yet actual character development was nowhere to be found. For instance Lee Chong is the same person from beginning to end. No realizations or Oprah Winfrey soul changes in his life at all. He just simply runs a fine business and lets stories unfold in front of him. The development is not in the people but in the Row itself. Cannery Row is a place where people live and Steinbeck allows us to see how their lives work. Mack and the boys are a very significant part of the book.
We learn about Mack’s life and how it was filled with opportunities like making a success of a marriage or to have accomplished something with his life. Mack managed to let all of these opportunities pass him by. Even the simplest of goals like the party, are a disaster. Yet Mack’s future does not seem to hold much more promise than his past. We see the book in real time and different stories run through it chapter to chapter like a highway. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I loved the rambling of story line as well as the many different characters. Cannery Row came alive with this style of writing. I felt at the end of the book I saw as much as I possibly could see in Cannery Row. To see people who come from all walks of life and all different classes for the most part get along was very refreshing and interesting.