I grew up in a small, country town.
I mean a really, really small country town. You could go so far as to say a one-horse town, if you were so inclined.
It only had one pub. That’s how small it was. It had two deli’s, colloquially named ‘Top Deli’ and ‘Bottom Deli’, signifying where they were in town. The local high school only went up to Year 10, further education required boarding away from home.
There was 21 children in my class and less than 200 in the entire school, years K-10. The town was small enough for us to roam unsupervised from a very young age, popping over to the deli during primary school lunchtimes to buy $1.00 worth of mixed lollies, heading down to the local pool and basketball courts to hang out after school. By the time we got to high school we ran wild and free, our parents had little concern for where we were as long as we were together. We ‘went out’ with boys, switching partners with casual abandon, barely bothered by the fact that our ex-boyfriend was now dating our best friend. The reason we weren’t bothered was because, by now, we were dating our best friends brother. If it sounds incestuous, it was; there are only so many partnering’s that can be had with so few teenagers.
It wasn’t a terrible place to grow up, but I saw no music or poetry there. There was no grace or elegance to the dusty dry streets of this fractured little town, held together by the simple fact that it was on the main thoroughfare south. I raced through my days there with my eyes closed, counting them down and flicking them away like broken beads.
I couldn’t wait to escape, and I have barely ever been back. I swore I would never raise a family in a town crippled by its own smallness, filled with gossipy women and reticent, work-worn men. The very description of the town fills me with quiet, repressed misery.
I don’t possess the talent or the mastery of language to bring beauty to grim, unattractive settings.
That is why I so admire John Steinbeck, why he is one of my favourite authors. He brings plainness and austerity to life in a way that is truly majestic – bringing melody and poetry to the most banal of settings.
I was reading Cannery Row this morning, and I came across one of these moments of what to me, is literary greatness. He describes Cannery Row, a town so small it must share its one-horse with the next town over. It is a settlement built on canning factories, backing into the ocean to collect the boatloads of sardines brought in each day by fisherman. If that doesn’t instantly put a stench in your nose, nothing will.
And yet, and yet. I found this particular description so musical that a fleeting thought crossed my mind, ‘I would love to go there on holiday’.
Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the grey time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter…And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of old canneries. It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest. Cats drip over the fences and slither like syrup over the ground to look for fish heads. Silent early morning dogs parade majestically picking and choosing judicially whereon to pee. The sea gulls…sit on the roof peaks shoulder to shoulder…The air is cool and fresh.
Who else could describe dogs peeing and stray cats hunting in such a glorious manner?
This little book is truly a masterpiece. And it is little, only 148 pages. The introduction charmingly states: Book size was, apparently, a private joke shared with his second wife in the 1940’s.
Throughout Cannery Row, Steinbeck transforms the common and prosaic into the enchanting, beginning with his characters. The book centres around an eccentric old scientist named Doc, a Chinese grocery store owner named Lee Chong, a whore-house (appealingly named The Bear Flag Restaurant) full of ageing yet charming whores, and a group of tramps who live together in a broken down old house they call ‘The Palace Flophouse and Grill’. I have deliberately introduced this plethora of unlikely characters in the most simplest of ways, so you can discover the charm Steinbeck gives them for yourself.
The book follows a short section of all of their lives, spun out by Steinbeck in the most interesting way. The group of bums take it upon themselves to do something nice for Doc, and the methods they go about doing it are nothing short of hysterical. They decide to throw him a party, a difficult accomplishment for a group of men with no money. They go to Doc with the offer to collect him frogs for 5c a piece, apparently missing the irony that Doc is essentially paying for his own party. Their efforts to collect the frogs, organise and eventually execute the party naturally culminate in disaster, but as usual…I am not going to describe the ending for you. I would never ruin a good Steinbeck.
This book is worth reading for the eloquence of its descriptions alone:
Cannery Row in Monterary in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.
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.
Steinbeck also uses this novella to criticise middle class America of that age, mocking their relentless and greedy ambition. He says:
What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals? Mack and the boys (the bums) avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums.
Steinbeck is famous for his portrayals of the poor, the beaten-down, the disillusioned, and nowhere does he do this so well as in Cannery Row. This is a beautiful book, full of kindness and wonder and sadness and fun. It is Steinbeck at his best, creating elegance and refinement out of bums and sardine canneries.
In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.
– John Steinbeck