By J.F. McKenna
Waves rhythmically gather toward shore and then recede, and the sight and the sound of such action deliver a sense of comfort in most of us. That same sense also comes when this child of Lake Erie takes refuge in the pages of John Steinbeck. That is particularly true after the past year’s winter, which painted the Northeast a dull gray day after day, week after week. Is it any wonder, then, that I have chosen this summer to indulge myself in a brief break inside the author’s Cannery Row? There any open-minded reader can find renewal amid “weedy lots and junk heaps…laboratories and flop houses.”
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.
Published 70 years ago this year, Cannery Row makes an ideal escape from the frenetic 2015 world of e-mails, 24-7 news and an Apple growing on one’s wrist. Despite its seemingly hard-luck Depression Era venue, the row—modeled on the old Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, California—is Steinbeck’s portrait of unadorned fellowship, featuring roadside philosopher Mack, Bear Flag Restaurant madam Dora Flood, wily entrepreneur Lee Chong and, of course, beloved marine biologist Doc.
Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini tagged the short novel as “a poisoned cream puff thrown at society beyond the town lines,” adding that “Steinbeck, writing at his most lyrical in places, indicts his country and its materialistic values—a theme that will resurface without the covering froth of charm in his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent.”
“It has always seemed strange to me,”said Doc.“The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”
Where else in literature can one attend some ne’er-do-wells’ party for Doc and find timeless insights about the whole world? Only in Steinbeck.
But, hey, my midyear break is defined by the pursuit of pleasure and relaxation. And Steinbeck’s styling in Cannery Row offers both in abundance. For Steinbeck, writes biographer Jackson J. Benson, “one of the most important ingredients in writing was sound,” noting that Steinbeck’s “intricate patterning of a novel such as Cannery Row…suggests that this interest in musical forms may have continued until late in his career….” Here are a few of from-the-row samples in which I continue to delight:
He was such a wonder Gay was—the little mechanic of God, the St. Francis of all things that turn and twist and explode, the St. Francis of coils and armatures and gears.
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 the Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern.
Over a period of years Doc dug himself into Cannery Row to an extent not even he expected. He became the fountain of philosophy and science and art….Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom….And everyone who thought of him thought next, “I really must do something nice for Doc.”
This Summer of 2015, Doc and the others of Cannery Row have done something not merely nice but special for me. Would I recommend just such a getaway? Damn right I would. The cost of the visit is minimal: Half-Price Books can arrange the trip for a couple of bucks.
And, to the author’s everlasting credit, the visit always proves priceless.
J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. A native of Cleveland, he and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna. Other McKenna thoughts on Steinbeck can be found in the online archives of Will Ray’s http://www.steinbecknow.com/ .