Monday, August 18, 2008

a habit, a nostalgia, a dream

This is Monterey, California:

Pretty awesome, huh?

Near the end of my internship in the Bay Area last spring I took a trip with my roommates to Monterey. When we got there I was immediately disappointed that there wouldn't time for a second trip before I left California. The reason for our voyage was a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which could've been more enjoyable had we not gone on a crowded Saturday. The aquarium is located at the north end of Cannery Row, a waterfront street named for the sardine canneries that occupied the avenue until the 1950s. Last week I finally got around to reading Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, which, as you can guess, is set in and inspired by the street I just mentioned.

The book is a quick read -- only 118 pages -- more of a novella than a novel. But even in a small amount of pages Steinbeck manages to develop characters that are consistent, deep, and memorable. The plot is simple: Mack and the boys, a handful of Cannery Row's resident bums, decide to do something nice for their friend Doc, a marine biologist who owns Western Biological Laboratory. Cannery Row has quite a dynamic feel, from humorous to somber, from cynical to upbeat.

The chaptering of the book is somewhat unique: odd chapters move the story along while the even chapters are short contextual vignettes that describe Cannery Row and Monterey in general.

The theme of the book revolves around Mack and the boys and the ease with which they find contentment in their simple lives as bums. While referring to Mack and the boys, Doc notes:

|| Doc said, "Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think," he went on, "that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else." ||

Earlier in the book Steinbeck mentions:

|| In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row. What 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 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. Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for the no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. ||

And finally, back to Doc:

|| "It has always seemed strange to me," said Doc. "The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second." ||


  1. this was my favorite part: "Our Father who art in nature...must have a great and overwhelming love for the no-goods and blots-on-the-town"

    one of these days i just might have to give Steinbeck a chance.

  2. You should read this one. It's got all of the things I like about him and it's only 118 pages. I'll let you borrow it.

  3. This sounds pretty awesome, I think I need to check it.

    Also, I can't believe that there is a book out there written by Card with the same name as an unrelated movie featuring BOTH Corey's. That's a must-read.

  4. myke, have i commissioned you to read "Anthem" by Ayn Rand? if not, then... i commission ye!

    i will have to put this steinbeck one on my list. those excerpts are awesome.

  5. I too agree with the comments given above. The book sounds good and I will put it on my "to read" list, but as you know I'm not much of a reader and am still reading the Harry Potter series. I'm now half way through "The Goblet of Fire" I do enjoy the books but I'm a slow reader and have other distractions that make it slow. This is the first time I've come to your blog and I enjoyed it. You are a good writer. Edwin has not yet occupied your room, he still sleeps in a bassinet by the bedside, but come three months, he will be moving in. Good luck in school.
    Oh yes, I'm totally excited for the 25th of Sept. can you guess why?


  6. Thanks Sarah! I miss you guys. You're making some serious headway with HP, that's awesome. Sept 25th, let's see, season premiere of the Office? I'm excited too.