I am often given a hard time for my taste in fiction. When you tell people that you are a fan of Hemingway or Steinbeck they usually brush your taste off in one word: Depressing. There is some truth to this claim. For example while defending my choice of Cannery Row for some fun light reading it occurred to me that two people commit suicide in the first sixteen pages. And yes, many Hemingway novels end with one character dying and the rest being miserable. However, I do not read these books for their endings — especially notThe Grapes of Wrath.
It is everything leading up to that. It is character, narrative and world class story telling that makes these writers great. Steinbeck was at his best in Tortilla Flat where he transports you into a new world and makes you feel very much a part of it. In Cannery Row you are whisked away into the wonderful world of a small town in California. You are introduced to different characters and social groups. If anything this is a portrait of a way of life. Much like Will Eisener’s writing on being Jewish and living in New York City tenements were about people, neighbourhoods and what it was like in a certain time at a certain place. These are stories at their best. They briefly take you away to another world.
This can be seen in the so-called in-between chapters in The Grapes of Wrath which detail the landscape and times, and not the main characters. They provide context and they give the impression of a living, breathing, vibrant way of life. In Cannery Row Steinbeck writes, “Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the gray 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.” Much like for Eisner the city itself is a character worthy of development and attention. Our cities, our neighbourhoods and the buildings we live and work in shape us. Few authors understand this as well as Steinbeck does.
Cannery Row is one of Steinbeck’s more lighthearted novels (unlike Of Mice and Men or The Winter of Our Discontent). Similar to Tortilla Flats it includes a group of guys who are generally unemployed but always up for a good time. He writes, “Two hours later they recalled what they had come for.” Steinbeck uses wit and laid back characters that through the third-person narrator seem to accept whatever fate comes their way.