There are several forms of imagery: simile, metaphor, solid description. Steinbeck uses them all to best advantage, but in his description he is concise, that is, using many words perhaps, but each word is strung in a list that results in a rat-a-tat-tat picture-perfect target hit with his bullets:
Coffee in its own can was simmering on its own rock, far enough from the flame so that it did not boil too had. Mack awakened, started up, stretched, staggered to the pool, washed his face with cupped hands, hacked, spit, washed out his mouth, broke wind, tightened his belt, scratched his legs, combed his wet hair with his fingers, drank from the jug, belched and sat down by the fire. "By God that smells good," he said.
Men all do about the same thing when they wake up. Mack’s process was loosely the one all of them followed. (p. 74)
Steinbeck uses this "listing" method quite often, when giving a description in full sentences of "then he…" would have seriously detracted from the story and slowed the pace. This quickness of action gives a full image, and keeps it interesting and lively.
The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn’t very long but in its course it has everything a river should have. It rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, is dammed to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. In the winter it becomes a torrent, a mean little fierce river, and in the summer it is a place for children to wade in and for fishermen to wander in. Frogs blink from its banks and the deep ferns grow beside it. Deer and foxes come to drink from it, secretly in the morning and evening, and now and then a mountain lion crouched flat laps its water. The farms of the rich little valley back up to the river and take in water for the orchards and vegetables. The quail call beside it and the wild doves come whistling in at dusk. Raccoons pace its edges looking for frogs. It’s everything a river should be. (p. 72)
He’s no slouch at simile either:
Behind him the rabbits stirred in the bush. Then the sun came up and shook the night chill out of the air the way you’d shake a rug. (p. 71)
Cats drip over the fences and slither like syrup over the ground to look for fish heads. (p. 81)
The water chuckled on the stones where it went out of the deep pool. (p. 78)
The more I read the masters, the more I am convinced that good writing is quite possibly primary to even good story.
There are, of course, some deeper things I’ve discovered in Cannery Row that need be more fully covered. A two-page chapter slipped in, seemingly unrelated to the story but bursting with metaphorical sense of it. These, I need to get back to.