Surely one of the best ways to really get to know a country and its people is to read its literature? It was in this spirit that I turned to John Steinbeck rather than a Rough Guide to accompany me on my Californian adventure last summer. As Steinbeck and his poodle took a road trip across the United States in Travels with Charley, I hit the road to his hometown of Salinas and explored the settings of some of his greatest novels. But as he observes so astutely in that same book, “many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased”. So in the bleak Scottish mid-Winter, about as far away from Steinbeck Country as I can get both geographically and spiritually, I tried to eke out my Californian summer just a bit longer. The dreamy haze of Monterey has lingered over me ever since and Cannery Row was the perfect excuse to revisit it.
For Steinbeck, memory lane is a real street and it’s called Cannery Row. (In fact, it was called Ocean View Avenue until the city of Monterey renamed it in his honour.) The book lets us stroll down and peer into the elements of his past that reside there. All along the waterfront street you would pass huge canneries, processing the morning’s catch of Pacific sardines. At number 800 would be the Biological Laboratories owned and operated by Steinbeck’s best friend, Ed Ricketts, the man on whom the character Doc is uncannily modelled. Over on the other side would be a Chinese grocery, just as it appears in the book. And it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if any of the characters wandered out in front of you. After all, the book makes you sure that Steinbeck must have met these characters at some point, so vividly do they appear on the page.
The novel is not one of plot – though there is a sparse one in which a few down and outs try to throw Doc a birthday party, twice, both times ending disastrously – but one that invokes an atmosphere, a time and a place. Set in the Depression era, it does more to capture the American psyche at a certain point in time than Fitzgerald and Hemingway combined, perhaps because it doesn’t try to. Aside from one lonely gopher there are no dreamers in Cannery Row – this is an America without a Dream. Instead there is a gritty realism to the characters’ approach to life, which makes the novel not dark exactly but sort of melancholy. They live on the brink of existence and one or two people even step over the edge, with suicides that haunt no more than a page or two, before life carries on as before. Henri the painter has notably spent over 10 years building a boat he will never sail because he’s afraid of the sea. Still, there are glimpses of the best of humanity and the struggle to make life better, like in Mrs Malloy who nags her husband for new curtains, even though they live inside a windowless boiler.
From the beginning Steinbeck is quite clear that there will be no clear structure, no through line from beginning to end. Instead he tells us that it is best “to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.” Consequently the unrelated anecdotes that pepper the book are unforced and natural. These little vignettes that break up the main narrative make the lack of plot not only bearable, but quite enjoyable. They place the inhabitants of Cannery Row carefully before us, to observe and study, like specimens in one of Doc’s tide pools. In these snippets of life they tell us more about human nature than the most exquisitely detailed character could. Even the wildlife, which is described in such beautiful detail, inhabits the Row so very meaningfully – from Darling, the dog that will not be housetrained, to the gopher who, in creating his paradise, dooms himself to a life of isolation.
Sometimes reminiscent of Joyce’s Dubliners in its painstaking portrayal of a specific place and the monotony of life there, the narrative sometimes breaks out into a moment of heightened poeticism, or terrible beauty where the metaphysical bubbles up to the surface of the naturalism. A boy confronts the Chinaman in the street, only when he looks into his eyes he sees “the desolate cold aloneness of the landscape”; Doc is attracted to something white moving in a tide pool to find that it is the corpse of a young girl, its purity and stillness magnified by the water. These images are what transform the novel from an astute and witty observation into something much more extraordinary.
Cannery Row is more detached and nostalgic than God in the Pipes, a similar earlier project in which Steinbeck’s contempt for the middle-class of his hometown is more cutting. Perhaps his move to the East Coast and time as a war correspondent mellowed him and allowed that mist to descend over Cannery Row that makes you idealise a place you once knew. In much the same, my memories of the bright and touristy Monterey have given way to the literary, Steinbeck version of events. But perhaps more importantly, Steinbeck returned from Europe where the war had replaced his faith in the goodness of people with a cynicism that forced him to turn from the incomprehensible magnitude of the war to the personal and the detailed . He uses the minute and the intricate to try and make sense of the whole, of life, and thus Cannery Row becomes a microcosm of the human race. Again, it is like a tide pool representing the entire ocean.