With every book, my affection for Steinbeck swells exponentially. Cannery Row is a story rhythmically interrupted by episodes of poetic grandeur and hyperbolic humor which describe a setting better than any official landmark or history textbook. Anecdotal accounts of seemingly insignificant characters have a way of slapping the reader in the mouth at the very last sentence. I felt like a man in a foreign town listening to a citizen dictating driving directions according to self-entitled landmarks and buildings. And within this town swirled Fate and Destiny, a powerful sovereign over intermingling histories and correlating circumstances.
As in other books, like The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck criticizes the deranged folly of Man’s Order of rules and enforceable laws over the natural intended organization between men. The relations between the characters, though constructed by petty illegalities, function efficiently, symbiotically and according to a natural moral and ethical code. For example, Mack possesses an honest disposition and hates liars who lie to themselves but easily embellishes and manipulates truth in the presence of official authority or legally protected owners. His respect for Doc, a somewhat altruistic and fair-minded town caretaker, inspires his feeling of magnanimity toward him, not legal obligation. Mack, though ostracized from society in the pursuits of shallow, selfish pleasures, respects the natural relationship of people and circumstances and ignores societal contempt.
Some have argued that Doc represents Steinbeck himself and I wonder if Mack then might represent an enviable alter ego. Attention must be called to a strange bond between Doc and Mack. As mentioned above, Mack lives outside of social convention whereas Doc lives within it. He doesn’t run a whorehouse or con grocery stores. Yet Mack respects him for his fairness and refusal to judge and his work for everyone in the community. And it is Doc who says this about Mack:
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.
A certain envy lies festering within Doc for the life Mack has chosen and the rules which govern him.
I have discovered that Steinbeck speaks very personally about social issues and the hypocrisy of American ethics and it fascinates me. I envy his clarity. A friend once asked me long ago if I ever hear a song and wish I’d come up with it myself. When I read Steinbeck, I wish I could say it like him.
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 no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.