Cannery Row Summary
Welcome to Cannery Row, where everyone's pretty poor and friendships are close. The major players here are Lee Chong, who owns the grocery store; Mack and the boys, bums who live on his property; Dora, the madam of the local brothel; and Doc, the guy who owns the Western Biological Lab. You know, your basic five-man band.
Everyone on Cannery Row likes Doc. He's always got advice, a sympathetic ear, and something interesting to tell you about, so, obviously, Mack and the boys decide to throw Doc a party.
But first, they need money. So, they hatch a scheme to capture a whole bunch of frogs, which they'll sell to Doc for five cents each. Their scheme works and soon they're rolling in ... frogs. And nickels. They get everything they need for a rocking party, and set up at Doc's before he arrives back that night from a trip. Doc comes back later than expected to find his place empty, but completely trashed.
After a low period for all of Cannery Row, Mack and the boys get it together to throw Doc another party, one that he can actually attend. They do it right this time, and Cannery Row pulls out the stops to make it one stupendous party. And it is. The book ends as Doc, happy but maybe a little wistful, too, cleans up after the big shindig.
- Let's start with Cannery Row.
- What is Cannery Row, anyway? Steinbeck enlightens us. Kind of. It's "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light... " (0.1). Okay, thanks.
- A little clarification: it's called Cannery Row because, you guessed it, there's a cannery there.
- When the boats full of sardines dock there, all the "Wops, Chinamen and Polaks" run down to stuff the poor things into cans. Note: Steinbeck didn't get the political correctness memo.
- After the smelly workers leave, "Cannery Row becomes itself again" and all the usual inhabitants come out.
- Steinbeck steps out of the action for a moment to wonder how he's going to write this book at all.
- Taking a page from marine biologists, he decides he'll "open the page and [ . . . ] let the stories crawl in by themselves" (0.3).
Get it? He's like a scientist observing a bunch of weird life-forms.
- Lee Chong's grocery has everything. Or at least everything you need "to live and be happy" (1.1), which is good enough for us.
- He's a nice guy, but not a pushover. "Everyone in Cannery Row owed him money," but after a while, he'd stop extending credit (1.2).
- One day, Lee Chong is standing at his usual spot at the counter thinking about something that happened that afternoon.
- This guy Horace Abbeville comes in. He has a huge family and owes Lee Chong for groceries big time.
- To pay him back, Horace offers Lee Chong his only thing of value, a beat-up old building filled with fish meal (mmmm!) on the other side of a vacant lot.
- This looks like a really bad trade—what is Lee Chong going to do with a stinky old building that anyone could break into?—but he agrees to take it.
- Horace leaves, goes into what used to be his building, and shoots himself.
- Lee Chong feels awful and does everything he can to help Horace's wives (!) and children.
- Now let's meet Mack. Mack lives in a rusty pipe in a vacant lot with some friends. And he wants some new digs.
- In the nicest possible way, Mack basically threatens to destroy Lee Chong's new building unless he and his friends can move in there: "'Place might burn down if somebody don't keep an eye on it'" (1.21).
- Mack and the boys call their new place the Palace Flophouse and Grill.The boys, uh, acquire paint and furniture to fix the place up.
- Now that they've got this fine place to live. Mack decides it would be a good idea to do something nice for Doc.
- Whoa. A confusing bit about how "the Word [ . . . ] sucks up" everyday things, turns them into the Word, then spits them out as Things again (2.1). Need a little help with this? Check out the "Spirituality" section in "Themes."
- Lee Chong, for instance, "is more than a Chinese grocer" (2.1) He's hanging somewhere between Lao Tze and "the cash register." between spiritual and practical, i.e., the Word and the Thing (2.1).
- He'll quibble over payment for beans (practical), but he'll also dig up his grandfather's bones and send them back to China to be buried properly (spiritual).
- Mack and the boys have their spiritual and practical sides too. They're "the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties" of Monterey.
- While everyone else is making themselves miserable trying to get what they want, Mack and the boys just go with the flow.
- Next door to Lee Chong's is Dora Flood's "stern and stately whorehouse" (3.1). Fun neighborhood!
- In addition to the girls and the cook, Dora employs a "watchman" named Alfred (3.2). (The previous watchman, William, came to a bad end.)
- William always wanted to hang out with Mack and the boys, but they didn't like him.
- He's so bummed about this that he goes around telling everyone he's going to kill himself.
- No one believes him, so William decides to teach them all a lesson by sticking the cook's icepick into his heart.
- Around dawn and dusk, the "old Chinaman" makes his appearance on Cannery Row (4.1). He goes down to the water at night and then heads back into town in the morning.
- He seriously creeps everyone out.
- Once a little boy who was visiting decided to tease him. When the old Chinaman turned around, he scared the little boy half to death.
- Doc's lab, Western Biological, is right across from the vacant lot. (Keeping a mental map?)
- The lab has all kinds of sea life and other animals, even babies in jars.
- Despite the babies in jars, everyone in Cannery Row likes to hang out there. Doc himself is a great guy who's always introducing people to poems and music.
- Doc and Hazel (one of Mack's boys) are collecting starfish at The Great Tide Pool, an awesome place.
- We learn how Hazel got his name. The two talk about a few other people they know, and about why stink bugs keep their butts in the air.
- It's good, down-home conversation.
- When Doc suggests that they're praying, Hazel freaks out a little.
- Mack and the boys grow to love their new home. They start bringing in all kinds of furniture and even a huge, heavy stove.
- Over a bottle of "punch" that Eddie has scavenged from the bar where he works, the boys decide that they want to throw a surprise party for Doc.
- To raise money for the party, they're going to go out of town to collect frogs, which Doc will buy from them.
- Time to meet some more people:
- Mr. and Mrs. Malloy live in a big rusty boiler in the vacant lot. It's way nicer than it sounds, because so many awesome plants grow around it.
- After Mr. Malloy becomes a "landlord" (by renting out space in the empty pipes lying around the lot), Mrs. Malloy starts to demand some of the finer things, like curtains. Too bad they don't have any windows.
- Mack goes over to Doc's laboratory to bring up his plan about the frogs. Doc is wary when Mack comes in, since he knows that Mack is usually trying to pull one over on him.
- Doc really needs frogs, though, so he agrees to pay for the gas Mack and the boys need to go to the Carmel Valley to get them. But he says no to loaning them his car.
- So Mack asks to borrow Lee Chong's beater. Problem is, the car doesn't run. Lee Chong agrees that Mack and the boys can borrow the car if they fix it first.
- Frankie is a mentally handicapped boy who hangs around Doc's lab.
- He's loving and very devoted to Doc, but he can't seem to quite do things right that require coordination.
- Hey, us too.
- Like, one day he wanted to bring a tray of beer to some of Doc's guests, but he ended up spilling the beer everywhere.
- He was so embarrassed that he ran to hide in the basement.
- Gay, one of Mack's boys, is an awesome mechanic. He finally gets Lee Chong's Model T working and the gang hits the road.
- Just outside of town, the car breaks down.
- Gay goes off to get the part they need to fix the car and ... disappears. He finally ends up in the Salinas jail.
- Meanwhile, Eddie goes off to find the part they need.
- We pause in our tale of Mack and the boys to learn about the town of Monterey and its "long and brilliant literary tradition" (12.1).
- To illustrate this, we get the story of the death of real-life comedy writer Josh Billings.
- The townsfolk discover that the local doctor (who also embalms people) has been throwing guts into the gulch behind his office.
- Everyone is shocked that a great literary man's guts were thrown out, so they make the doctor collect them, clean them and put them in a box with the rest of the body.
- Because literary men deserve respect. And also because throwing human entrails into a ditch is just gross.
- Back to the story of Mack and the boys' camping trip.
- The next morning, Eddie comes back with an entire stolen carburetor. They put it in the car and they're on their way.
- On the way to the Carmel River they hit a rooster, find a bag of carrots, and steal a bag of onions. Dinner!
- The boys find a nice spot, make a campfire and settle in to rest for a few hours, since you can only catch frogs at night.
- Over a nice chicken dinner, Mack and the boys talk about how you can't trust a married man.
- Mack starts wondering whether they're really throwing this party for Doc or themselves.
- Suddenly, an angry man with a dog tells them to get off his property.
- Mack manages to charm him, though, and everyone ends up going up to the man's house, where he just happens to have a pond full of frogs.
- Mack and the boys call the man "the captain."
- Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, Cannery Row, it's the break of dawn. Two soldiers and their dates have been up all night.
- The four cross the town and sit on a little beach by the Hopkins Marine Station.
- Suddenly a grumpy man with a dog and a flashlight comes out to tell them to beat it (sound familiar?).
- One of the soldiers knows just what to do. He "kindly" tells him to "'take a flying fuggut the moon'" (14.5).
- Well, solved that one.
- Back to our regularly scheduled programming.
- Mack and the boys learn that the captain's wife is a politician and out of town. Par-tay!
- The captain brings up a giant barrel of whiskey from the cellar and everyone gets a little toasty before going out to catch frogs.
- Finally, they go out to the pond and catch frogs beyond their wildest expectations.
- Back in the house, they have more whiskey and light the curtains on fire.
- The captain falls asleep on the floor and, before he wakes up, Mack and the boys skedaddle with the jug of whiskey and puppy the captain had offered to them.
- We step out of the chronology of the story here to hear about a time when Dora and the girls were the busiest they'd ever been.
- It just happened to coincide with a time when Cannery Row was in the middle of an influenza epidemic.
- None of the licensed doctors wanted to treat anyone on Cannery Row because they were "not considered a good financial risk" (16.3).
- So Doc played doctor and Dora sent her girls around with soup and comfort.
- Remember how Doc couldn't loan Mack and the boys his car?
- He needed it to go on the trip we're going to hear about now, down to La Jolla to pick up some baby octopi. All of his friends are busy, so he has to go alone. On the way down, he picks up a hitchhiker who ends up really getting on his nerves.
- When Doc was in college, he learned that sometimes people would rather hear a plausible lie than the truth.
- He uses this knowledge when he goes into a restaurant and asks for something he's wanted to try for years: a beer milkshake.
- Instead of telling the waitress the truth, he tells her he's sick and the doctor has prescribed beer milkshakes.
- Doc gets to La Jolla late at night. He sleeps in his car.
- The next morning, octopus-collecting goes great, and he gets everything he needs.
- As he's about to pack up, he notices something in the water. It's a girl's body, though all he can see is her beautiful face.
- Doc hears awesome, creepy music in his head as he sits on the rocks thinking about the girl's face.
- He's seriously having some kind of intense experience over this dead girl.
- A man comes over to ask him what's the matter. Doc tells him about the body and asks him to report it to the police, even offering him the money he'd get for reporting it.
- Back at Cannery Row, everyone (especially Henri) is obsessed with the flagpole skater that Holman's department store hired.
- There's one question that everyone's afraid to ask, though: how does he go to the bathroom?
- Finally one night, after fighting with his wife, Richard Frost finally screws up the courage to ask. And he learns the answer: "He's got a can up there."
- Mack and the boys arrive home triumphant in a truck filled with a thousand frogs.
- Lee agrees to Mack's bright idea to use the frogs as currency until Doc gets back from his trip and they can redeem them for cash.
- The boys break the bank on decorations and supplies for Doc's surprise party. They decorate his lab and put the giant box of frogs in the middle of the living room.
- The party gets started before Doc gets back from his trip and everyone parties like it's 1999. It gets rowdy by the end and Doc's lab is nearly destroyed and all the frogs get out.
- Minor problem: Doc hasn't returned from his trip yet.
- Doc is unpleasantly surprised to come home to his lab in ruins.
- When Mack tries to explain, Doc punches him in the mouth.
- Then they share some beer, like you do.
- Doc spends the rest of the day cleaning up the mess.
- Meet Henri. He's not French, and he's not actually named Henri—but he is an artist.
- He's also a boat-builder.
- He's been building a boat for years and can't seem to finish it. It's small, but has everything you need.
- He's had lots of girlfriends and a few wives, but eventually they leave because the place is too small and, uh, there's no toilet.
- After his latest squeeze walks out, Henri has a really disturbing hallucination of a man cutting a baby's throat.
- Completely freaked, he goes to talk to Doc about it. Doc doesn't want to hear word one about it, but a girl at his place says she'll go over and wait for the ghost with him.
- It never comes back, but she becomes his newest honey.
- After the Doc's party fiasco, Mack and the boys are outcasts.
- On the Fourth of July, Doc and Richard Frost are sitting in the lab drinking beer. Doc sees Mack and the boys outside the Palace and starts talking about how Mack and the boys are great philosophers and how, when the parade goes by, they probably won't even turn to look at it, since they already know what they'd see. Why waste the energy?
- Doc and Richard Frost place a wager on whether Mack and the boys will turn around.
- Turns out, Mack and the boys are just miserable—maybe they didn't turn around because they were depressed. Since Mack and the boys became outcasts, everyone on Cannery Row has been having bad luck. Even Mack's dog is sick.
- Gee, it's almost like everyone's connected. But then Doc comes over to help out the dog, and she starts to get better.
- Somehow, this stops the streak of bad luck and things look up for everyone.
- Mack and the boys decide to throw Doc a party he can actually go to.
- Here we take another little break from the plot:
- Mary Talbot loves to give parties, but she and her husband Tom are pretty short in the dough department.
- So Mary gives parties on the cheap, sometimes just for the stray cats that live in the yard.
- One day Tom is feeling pretty down: he's a writer, but he can't sell any of his work.
- Mary goes out to have a tea party with the stray cats and finds one of them doing something really gross with a mouse.
- Mary gets super upset and Tom comforts her. Comforting her makes Tom feel better, and soon Mrs. Tom is throwing a pregnancy party.
- Everything's going great on Cannery Row now that Mack and the boys are back in the fold.
- The Palace is somehow the center of all the sunshine and rainbows.
- Mack pretends that Hazel is into astrology in order to find out Doc's birthday, because they figure they'll throw the next party as a birthday party.
- Doc is suspicious (understandably) and doesn't give his real birthday.
- We pause again for a small break from the plot.
- A couple of little boys are up to no good down on Cannery Row. They wonder if they can get into Doc's laboratory to see if he has babies in jars.
- One of the boys teases the other about his father's suicide. Bottom line: kids stink.
- Word has gotten around about the party, and everyone in Cannery Row is getting super psyched and choosing gifts for Doc.
- But, since this is Cannery Row, the gifts are kind of odd—like stray-auto-parts weird.
- Doc gets wind of the party and wisely prepares by hiding the valuables and buying the food he's pretty sure the party-planners will forget.
- Frankie hears about the party and decides he'd like to get a gift for Doc, too. He knows just what he wants to get him—a beautiful clock, but it's way too expensive.
- So, Frankie decides to break the jewelry store window and take the clock. Naturally.
- Of course, he gets caught almost immediately.
- Despite Doc's pleading, Frankie is taken away to an institution.
- Everyone, including Doc, is getting ready for the party.
- Mack's boys are even taking baths.
- Dora's girls are going to work in shifts so they can take turns going to the party.
- Doc listens to sad music and drinks whisky as he waits for the guests to arrive, which, dude, is no way to pre-game.
- Par-tay! Like at most parties, everyone's a little uncomfortable at first before loosening up.
- Doc serves up the food and, afterwards, they listen to music.
- Then Doc reads a sad poem aloud, but it's interrupted by a huge, awesome fight.
- When the fight's over, everyone bets back to merry-making.
- We interrupt the plot to bring you this important update:
- A gopher used to live in the vacant lot.
- (Yes. We are really talking about gophers now.)
- It turns out that the lot is a really fantastic place for a bachelor gopher.
- There are no other male gophers around to compete with, there aren't any gardeners trying to kick him out, and the soil is just right.
- The problem is that there also aren't any female gophers. That's a show-stopper. The gopher is forced to move out.
- It's the morning after the party. Doc's place is trashed, but he feels pretty good.
- After he washes the glasses, Doc reads aloud the rest of the sad poem that he had started during the party.
- He gets a little sadder as he finishes washing the dishes, reciting the last stanza from memory.