Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

I think of Ernest Hemingway and Steinbeck together. Both are writers of the Depression, and both are what I'd call double-fisted men. Their characters are men at war with the world around them; the world often wins.

Neither writes of women with considerable depth, and whether that's a flaw of their vision (not realizing that their women aren't equal to their men) or whether that's a strategic choice (realizing that they don't write well about women, and so choosing not to), is a matter I'm open to debating.

But Hemingway men and Steinbeck men fight opposite wars. Hemingway men live alone, fight alone, and die nobly alone. When Robert Jordan's leg is broken in For Whom the Bell Tolls, when Jake continuously pursues Brett in The Sun Also Rises, when Santiago battles the great fish despite the treachery of his left hand in The Old Man and the Sea, each continues to fight to show the indifferent universe what a man can endure.

Steinbeck men fight for each other, against the systems of the wider world. This seems to me to be a truer thing.

Cannery Row is a simple story: a group of lay-abouts (Mac and the boys) decide to throw a party for Doc, the town saint. The story blooms as the characters develop in their relationships with each other: who lies to whom, who sees through the lies, what plans go right and wrong.

For me, the archetypical episode is when Mac and the boys go to catch frogs, to sell to Doc, so that they'll have the money to throw him a party. The frog catching requires overcoming a broken down car, an impossibly steep hill, and an angry landowner. They do this with a lucky mix of manual skills and the deft manipulation of people's conflicting suspicion and trust. Mac and the boys are slick talkers, but the never use their powers for evil.

Because at the heart of Cannery Row, as all of Steinbeck's books, lies the certain knowledge that the greatest version of ourselves only comes out when we are working for each other.

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