I honestly don’t believe I’d read more than an excerpt of Steinbeck when a neighbor who enjoyed book talks placed East of Eden in my hand and said, “Carol, you need to read this.” We’ve heard that sentence before, haven’t we? And the rebel in me heartily resists unless the source is well known and trusted. (Never mind that often I’m the one placing books in others’ hands with those words. Never mind, I said.)
I have a shelf in which I keep borrowed books so they don’t get co-mingled with my own collection. This shelf was getting thick and so, after a year, I picked up East of Eden and started in. And suddenly I couldn’t put it down. That modern re-telling of Cain and Abel was painful, raw, provocative and beautiful all at once.
Since our library has several Steinbeck books on tape, I listened to The Grapes of Wrath another disturbing but compelling book. It provided context for the limited knowledge I have about life in America in the Thirties. Next, I listened to The Pearl a parable of sorts.
Cannery Row is a narrative which knits the yarn of short vignettes into a whole piece. Many of the chapters could stand alone as examples of fine writing to study. We see a slice of the lives of Doc, a marine biologist; Dora, a madam; Mack and his buddies, general drifters; and Lee Chong, the owner of a grocery store. They are collected together in a sketchy neighborhood of abandoned canneries.
The opening sentence can compete with the best of opening sentences: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise; a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
…casting about in Hazel’s mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum. Hazel’s mind was choked with uncatalogued exhibits. He never forgot anything but he never bothered to arrange his memories. Everything was thrown together like fishing tackle in the bottom of a rowboat, hooks and sinkers and lines and lures and gaffs all snarled up.
He was such a wonder, Gay was–the little mechanic of God, the St. Francis of all things that turn and twist and explode,
the St. Francis of coils and armatures and geats.
No one has studied the psychology of a dying party. It may be raging, howling, boiling, and then a fever sets in and a little silence and then quickly quickly it is gone, the guests go home or go to sleep or wander away to some other affair and they leave a dead body.
Doc awakened very slowly and clumsily like a fat man getting out of a swimming pool. His mind broke the surface and fell back several times.