Cannery Row is a sentimental, nostalgic portrayal of the lazy, the shiftless, the good-natured lowlifes who survive at the fringes of a fishing and canning community outside Monterey, California. Working only when they must, preferring drinking, fighting, and indolence, “the boys” of Cannery Row are somewhat akin to the old picaresque heroes of the seventeenth and eighteenth century novel. The picaro of these early novels was something of a rogue who lived by his or her wits, and who, despite poverty and social ostracism, displayed a basic goodness and a sense of practical wisdom.
Like their picaro predecessors, Mack and the boys have little or no money; they live off the vagaries of chance and opportunity; they engage in low-key bargaining with tightfisted Lee Chong, owner of the Row’s grocery store; some of them occasionally land in jail. They are not above working when they absolutely have to, but more often than not they borrow, barter, or somehow “find” what they need. Indeed, the essential difference between the picaro and Steinbeck’s modern rascals is that the latter lack a sense of purpose or ambition. Where a Lazarillo de Tormes or a Moll Flanders proceeds from one adventure to another in a purposeful, strategic direction, from less to more, from outsider to member of the establishment, Mack and his fellows simply drift, taking one day at a time, indifferent to the possibilities of their own social reformation, of the progress from dereliction to responsibility.
The plot of Cannery Row reflects this drift, this flaccid indifference to significant social action. It centers on the boys’ only goal—that of giving Doc a party. A marine...
(The entire section is 695 words.)