LITERATURE: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Wow, I’d forgotten how good Steinbeck really is; sixteen pages into the book, concise yet descriptive grounding through setting and character, and bada-boom, bada-bing–we’re into this story.

No overwhelming of words, either in understanding or needless excess:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, 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.  (p. 1)

In this opening paragraph of the story, Steinbeck has crammed sights, sounds, smells and textures.  Even our sense of taste has been appealed to by the mention of sardines and groceries, not that they are "tastes" per se, but because in bombarding us with the obvious and familiar, we ourselves apply the missing pieces upon his prompting.

The character of the grocer, Lee Chong, is dropped into the setting of his store with a grace and finesse that we are slowed down to meet him.  He, with his "round-faced and courteous" demeanor; his "fat delicate hands rested on the glass, the fingers moving like small restless sausages."  And Steinbeck gives us his character by relating a deal that is being made between Lee Chong and first one of his deeply indebted customers (who trades his warehouse for a paid bill and immediately goes over there and shoots himself).  We see Lee Chong’s regret, his business savy, his patience and his mind ticking in another "can’t say no" deal to obtain protection of the warehouse by renting it to an unlikely group of bums who would, Chong knows, likely burn it down to make their point.

So much happening in this brief few pages of the first chapter. 

Already, though I’ve since found that the discussion meeting of this book is tomorrow night so there is reason for concentrated effort, I am saddened by the realization that the book is only 185 pages.

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