Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, May 27, 2001

Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

These are the stories of cannery workers at their self-made “Palace Flophouse and Grill” in Monterey, magical stories full of adventure and nobility.

AuthorJohn Steinbeck
Length196 pages
Book Rating7

Cannery Row” is the tale of cannery workers at their self-made “Palace Flophouse and Grill” in Monterey, and how they decide to do something nice for a friend they call “Doc”, and how they carry it out, fail, and succeed. “Sweet Thursday” is the “sequel”, the same characters, different story. These are magical stories full of adventure and nobility, but the nobility of the downtrodden underworld and the adventure of intellectual and emotional survival.

When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book--to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.

These are the Steinbeck works that I go back to most often, and they remain a wonderful read every time I return.

“Cannery Row” is full of gems, conflicting with individualism and hopelessness. After a customer killed himself, grocery store owner Lee Chong “knew he could not have helped it, but he wished he might have known and perhaps tried to help. It was deeply a part of Lee’s kindness and understanding that man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.”

“Doc” is the owner of the Western Biological Laboratory, a mail-order company that takes orders for various things that high school and college biology labs need. His home and warehouse is across the street from Lee Chong’s grocery, right near the Palace Flophouse and Grill (owned by Lee but inhabited by Mack and the boys) and Dora Flood’s Bear Flag Restaurant (but don’t go in expecting a sandwich, Dora Flood is a madam and the Bear Flag is a respectable whorehouse). Mack and the boys are homeless cannery workers--they used to be homeless, until they began renting the Palace Flophouse and Grill from Lee Chong.

Doc shares his philosophy with the boys. Talking about why stink bugs hold their tails in the air:

“I think they’re praying,” said Doc.

“What!” Hazel was shocked.

“The remarkable thing,” said Doc, “isn’t that they put their tails up in the air--the really incredibly remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we’d probably be praying--so maybe they’re praying.”

Steinbeck’s cannery row is filled with wonderful characters and logic, and I strongly recommend both of these books. You can purchase them separately, or in the collection “The Short Novels of John Steinbeck”, which contains all of my favorite Steinbeck stories, including these two.

Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday

John Steinbeck

Recommendation: Purchase

If you enjoyed Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday…

For more about John Steinbeck, you might also be interested in Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, and Satire isn’t comedy.

For more about slums, you might also be interested in Ask the Dust, Never Come Morning, and Tortilla Flat.

For more about whimsical, you might also be interested in City of Lost Children, Hook, King of Hearts, L.A. Story, The Wizard of Oz, Yellow Submarine, Moonshadow, Oddville! and Land of Nod, Peter Pan, The Complete Lewis Carroll, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The World of Pooh.