Stumped from John Steinbeck

Pacific Coast trees

Pacific Coast trees image courtesy of beglib, Morguefile.

This week, I decided to cross another book off my literary bucket list by reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It’s a classic novel about the seaside town of Monterey in California and set during the era of the Great Depression.

I have mixed feelings about this book. Not to offend any Steinbeck fans out there, but there isn’t much to the book, despite the enticing blurb on the back. But it’s not the first time those blurb-writers have played havoc with my literary expectations, the cheeky rascals.

I kept thinking, “John? Is there a plot here? Hello? You listening?” The book’s plot can be summed up in four sentences:

1. Mack, a silver-tongued con artist, and his band of friends decide to throw a party for Doc, a marine biologist and the smartest man in town.

2. The party gets out of control and Doc’s place gets trashed.

3. Doc eventually forgives the boys and Mack raises the money to hold another party.

4. Doc’s place is trashed again, but this time Doc had some warning and protected his more valuable stuff.

I’m also not a big fan of Chapter Two, because it gets metaphysical and esoteric. Here’s a sample:

“The word is a symbol and a delight which sucks up men and scenes, trees, plants, factories and Pekinese. Then the Thing becomes the Word and back to Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern. The Word sucks up Cannery Row, digests it, and spews it out, and the Row has taken the shimmer of the green world and the sky-reflecting seas.”

Um….okay. As my college professors can tell you, I’m used to analyzing symbolism and deciphering the metaphysical, but Steinbeck had me stumped on this one. Doggone it, I really don’t understand why a word would want to swallow a Pekinese (or anything else). But I can think of a couple of artistic-minded bloggers who would have great fun creating that image. (Art B., are you there?)

However, I am determined to be fair. This novel had to be a classic for a good reason, and I believe that it’s the high quality of the writing. Steinbeck paints an evocative portrait of a down-at-heel town populated with vivid characters. I could almost smell the ocean and hear the cries of the sea gulls.

Overall, Cannery Row is a decent read. And I’m happy to say that Monterey has long since revitalized itself and looks like an attractive place to visit. (Hey, they’ve got a Ghirardelli’s. I’d go just for their exquisite chocolate.) If you care to visit it virtually, check out this video. Have fun on your virtual road trip.



Filed under Writing

16 responses to “Stumped from John Steinbeck

  1. Good analysis — the good, the bad, and the ugly all in one.

  2. I enjoyed reading Cannery Row. I read it shortly after a visit to Monterey years ago. Monterey is a great place to visit. Especially the excellent Monterey Bay Aquarium.

  3. I saw the Nick Nolte/Debra Winger movie adaptation long before I knew it was a John Steinbeck novel first. Steinbeck, I think, like other great authors, had the ability of getting books published simply because their reputation and name allowed them to get work published that lesser acclaimed authors wouldn’t be able to do so.

  4. I love Cannery Row (it’s actually one of my Most Favorite books — hopefully this doesn’t immediately discredit me) because Steinbeck’s so darn good at painting a literary landscape & developing character portraits. You’re absolutely right, though — the “plot” (quotations intended) is… lacking… at best. Great analysis on why it’s one of those classics that’s surprisingly polarizing!

  5. Hi Eagle-Eyed Editor: found you via The Polka Dot Palace. Your posts are very interesting! I am a fan of Steinbeck, but not of this particular book. Really liked “East of Eden” which I read back in high school. I am curious as to what other books are on your bucket list. Have you ever read, “How Green Was My Valley,” by Richard Llewellyn? That is a fantastic book; beautiful dialogue cadence and moving storyline.

    • No, I haven’t read “How Green Was My Valley” but it looks like fun, so I’m adding it to the list!

      As for my bucket list, it includes books such as Vanity Fair, The Lucky One, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, On The Road and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I’ve read the first two so far.

  6. Okay….I’m late to this post, but I’ve got to chime in. (I wandered here from your Valentine’s Day post.) I actually liked “Cannery Row” because of the use of language — fun to read and imagine. I remembered the pekinese sentence, and remember liking it (and only wanting to understand it) for the way it sounded. Maybe Mr. S. was more poet than author, because I tend to fly reading Steinbeck, plod reading Dreiser and yawn reading Hemingway. Each one, though, gives me some new perspective and something new to think about.


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