I cannot think of an opening passage that so exquisitely sums up a novel than Steinbeck’s first paragraph
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” and he would have meant the same thing.
Oddly, I don’t think I had read any Steinbeck since I was at school, and my dipping in and out of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ then barely constituted reading; it felt like a rather big omission in what I had read.
Set in the depression of the 1930s when Monterey was a fishing town a bit down on its luck and where the canneries were the main business. The town is just a back-drop to a series of brilliantly drawn, resourceful, mainly working class characters who were living on the margins – including a brothel keeper, a small shop keeper, a number of drifters and casual workers and ‘Doc’, a marine biologist supplying specimens for academic institutions across America. Cannery Row covers their lives and interactions through a series of linked vignettes.
It is a fantastic, beautifully paced novel that left me wanting more so I have already added its sequel, “Sweet Thursday”, to my electronic reading pile.