Monday, July 8, 2013

Passage from Cannery Row

About three quarters of the way through reading John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, I found myself in a daze, my mind lost in curiousness about mankind - a thing Steinbeck does to me with every book I've read of his. There were two or three pages that stood out to me especially. 

It won't ruin the book to read the passage I'm referring to. And you don't have to know the context the passage follows in the book. All you need to know is that Doc is a marine biologist admired by Mack and the boys, a group of vagabonds who live in a dilapidated building known as the Palace Flophouse. They are never able to keep jobs. They find themselves always having good intentions but always making a mess of things. They try to throw a party for Doc that goes horribly wrong and causes hundreds of dollars of damage to his laboratory. The whole town of Monterey views Mack and the boys as a group of evil-doers and misfits. But Doc loves the boys and always finds room to forgive them, knowing their good intentions.


     It was the Fourth of July. Doc was sitting in the laboratory with Richard Frost. They drank beer and listened to a new album of Scarlatti and looked out the window. In front of the Palace Flophouse there was a large log of wood where Mack and the boys were sitting in the mid-morning sun. They faced down the hill toward the laboratory.
     Doc said, "Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else." This speech so dried out Doc's throat that he drained his beer glass. He waved two fingers in the air and smiled. "There's nothing like that first taste of beer," he said.
     Richard Frost said, "I think they're just like anyone else. They just haven't any money."
     "They could get it," Doc said. "They could ruin their lives and get money. Mack has qualities of genius. They're all very clever if they want something. They just know the nature of things well to be caught in that wanting."
     If Doc had known of the sadness of Mack and the boys he would not have made the next statement, but no one had told him about the social pressure that was exerted against Mack and the boys.
     He poured beer slowly into his glass. "I think I can show you proof," he said. "You see how they are sitting facing this way? Well- in about half an hour the Fourth of July Parade is going to pass through. By just turning their heads they can see it, by standing up they can watch it, and by walking two short blocks they can be right beside it. Now I'll bet you a quart of beer they won't even turn their heads."
     "Suppose they don't?" said Richard Frost. "What will that prove?"
     "What will it prove?' cried Doc. 'Why just that they know what will be in the parade. They will know that the Mayor will ride first in an automobile with bunting streaming back from his hood. Next will come Long Bob on his white horse with the flag. Then the city council, then two companies of soldiers from the Presidio, next the Elks with purple umbrellas, then the Knights Templar in white ostrich feathers and carrying swords. Next the Knights of Columbus with red ostrich feathers and carrying swords. Mack and the boys know that. The band will play. They've seen it all. They don't have to look again."
     "The man doesn't live who doesn't have to look at a parade," said Richard Frost.
     "Is it a bet then?"
     "It's a bet."
     "It has always seemed strange to me," said Doc. "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."
     "Who wants to be good if he has to be be hungry too?" said Richard Frost.
     "Listen," said Doc. "Isn't that the band I hear?" Quickly he filled two glasses with beer and the two of them stepped close to the window.
     Mack and the boys sat dejectedly on their log and faced the laboratory. The sound of the band came, the drums echoing back from the buildings. And suddenly the Mayor's car crossed and it sprayed bunting from the radiator- then Long Bob on his white horse carrying the flag, then the band, the soldiers, the Elks, the Knights Templar, the Knights of Columbus. Richard and Doc leaned forward tensely but they were watching the line of men sitting on the log.
     And not a head turned, not a neck straightened up. The parade filed past and they did not move. And the parade was gone. Doc drained his glass and waved two fingers gently in the air and he said, "Hah! There's nothing in the world like the first taste of beer."
     Richard started for the door. "What kind of beer do you want?'
     'The same kind,' Doc said gently. He was smiling up the hill at Mack and the boys.
     It's all fine to say, 'Time will heal everything, this too shall pass away. People will forget-' and things like that when you are not involved, but when you are, there is no passage of time, people do not forget and you are in the middle of something that does not change. Doc didn't know the pain and self-destructive criticism in the Palace Flophouse or he might have tried to do something about it. And Mack and the boys did not know how he felt or they would have held up their heads again.


Leah said...

Thanks for sharing, Will. That is a powerful excerpt. I'll have to read the book now...

Jess Wilkins said...

What else can I say? except that I love Steinbeck.

benjamin said...

Steinbeck cuts deep.