Adam Wible: Cannery Row

Adam Wible Notes on John Steinbeck's Cannery Row
Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck
Adam Wible’s rating: 5.0 / 5.0.

Classic Steinbeck, creative and vivid descriptions, deadpan delivery, brilliant and beautiful portrayal of an “ugly” subject.
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Lee Chong’s grocery, while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply.

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Lee was round-faced and courteous. He spoke a stately English without ever using the letter R.

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But whereas most men in their search for contentment destroy themselves and fall wearily short of their targets, Mack and his friends approached contentment casually, quietly, and absorbed it gently.

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Lee Chong is more than a Chinese grocer. He must be. Perhaps he is evil balanced and held suspended by good—an Asiatic planet held to its orbit by the pull of Lao Tze and held away from Lao Tze by the centrifugality of abacus and cash register—Lee Chong suspended, spinning, whirling among groceries and ghosts.

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They are the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic Monterey where men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them.

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What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?

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Once the safe got locked by mistake and no one knew the combination. And in the safe was an open can of sardines and a piece of Roquefort cheese. Before the combination could be sent by the maker of the lock, there was trouble in the safe. It was then that Doc devised a method for getting revenge on a bank if anyone should ever want to. “Rent a safety deposit box,” he said, “then deposit in it one whole fresh salmon and go away for six months.” After the trouble with the safe, it was not permitted to keep food there any more. It is kept in the filing cabinets.

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The toilet leaked for five years until a clever and handsome guest fixed it with a piece of chewing gum.

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He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth. It is said that he has helped many a girl out of one trouble and into another. Doc has the hands of a brain surgeon, and a cool warm mind. Doc tips his hat to dogs as he drives by and the dogs look up and smile at him. He can kill anything for need but he could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.

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He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, “I really must do something nice for Doc.”

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There is no term comparable to green thumbs to apply to such a mechanic, but there should be. For there are men who can look, listen, tap, make an adjustment, and a machine works. Indeed there are men near whom a car runs better.

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Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars. With the Model T, part of the concept of private property disappeared. Pliers ceased to be privately owned and a tire pump belonged to the last man who had picked it up. Most of the babies of the period were conceived in Model T Fords and not a few were born in them. The theory of the Anglo Saxon home became so warped that it never quite recovered.

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Mack awakened, started up, stretched, staggered to the pool, washed his face with cupped hands, hacked, spat, 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 things when they wake up. Mack’s process was loosely the one all of them followed.

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“He used to make a lot of dough during Prohibition,” Mack said. “Used to get twenty-five bucks a day from the government to dive lookin’ for liquor on the bottom and he got three dollars a case from Louie for not findin’ it. Had it worked out so he brought up one case a day to keep the government happy. Louie didn’t mind that none. Made it so they didn’t get in no new divers.

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It took Doc longer to go places than other people. He didn’t drive fast and he stopped and ate hamburgers very often.

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Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress.

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Each time he was left alone, he mourned formally for a while but actually he felt a sense of relief. He could stretch out in his little cabin. He could eat what he wanted. He was glad to be free of the endless female biologic functions for a while. It had become his custom, each time he was deserted, to buy a gallon of wine, to stretch out on the comfortably hard bunk and get drunk. Sometimes he cried a little all by himself but it was luxurious stuff and he usually had a wonderful feeling of well-being from it.

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Socially Mack and the boys were beyond the pale. Sam Malloy didn’t speak to them as they went by the boiler. They drew into themselves and no one could foresee how they would come out of the cloud. For there are two possible reactions to social ostracism—either a man emerges determined to be better, purer, and kindlier or he goes bad, challenges the world and does even worse things. This last is by far the commonest reaction to stigma.

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“I think they’re just like anyone else. They just haven’t any money.” “They could get it,” Doc said. “They could ruin their lives and get money. Mack has qualities of genius. They’re all very clever if they want something. They just know the nature of things too well to be caught in that wanting.”

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“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.”

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It’s all fine to say, “Time will heal everything, this too shall pass away. People will forget”—and things like that when you are not involved, but when you are there is no passage of time, people do not forget and you are in the middle of something that does not change.

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It’s all right not to believe in luck and omens. Nobody believes in them. But it doesn’t do any good to take chances with them and no one takes chances. Cannery Row, like every place else, is not superstitious but will not walk under a ladder or open an umbrella in the house.

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Henri’s friend Eric, a learned barber who collected the first editions of writers who never had a second edition or a second book, decided to give Doc a rowing machine he had got at the bankruptcy proceedings of a client with a three-year barber bill. The rowing machine was in fine condition. No one had rowed it much. No one ever uses a rowing machine.

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“He never comes in here for a trick,” Doris said a little sadly. “Lots of guys don’t want to pay,” said Phyllis Mae. “Costs them more but they figure it different.” “Well, hell, maybe he likes them.” “Likes who?” “Them girls that go over there.” “Oh, yeah—maybe he does. I been over there. He never made a pass at me.” “He wouldn’t,” said Doris. “But that don’t mean if you didn’t work here you wouldn’t have to fight your way out.”

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