When I first read this book some two decades ago, I liked it less than its prequel, Cannery Row, but more than another Steinbeck’s Monterey novel, Tortilla Flat. Having only read it once (unlike the other two), I forgot it almost completely over the years. Steinbeck being in general one of my favourite authors, it was only logical that when I began buying English originals from Amazon, sooner or later I would order this one as well.
I read it this month and ended up feeling fairly equivocal about it. The first half or so I enjoyed even more than Cannery Row (read two months previously) this time. I wondered whether the reason was that in my early twenties my mind was closer to the ‘Mack and the boys’ devil-may-care attitude towards life, while in my early forties I have more understanding for Doc’s more sedate one. Despite Doc’s being troubled by mid-life crisis. (Went through mine in my thirties.)
But after that it took a downward turn. Steinbeck decided to solve Doc’s problems by a romance – worse, the type with a happy ending. Which is all perfectly natural and possibly the best thing he could do for his average fan; it half-spoiled the book for me. Being gay, I’m tired of heterosexual romances in literature. Being cynical, I’m tired of ‘and they were happy ever after’ endings. And being cynical, I don’t believe in love at first sight, even when it’s introduced by such a great storyteller as Steinbeck. In the words written by another great storyteller, Isaac Asimov, for one of his characters to say,
It was not love at first sight. What can one possibly know at first sight but superficialities – and very likely deceiving ones, at that?
Just in case you interpret the word ‘love’ differently from him and me, he later also says this:
In the end I was in love, by which I do not mean I was overcome by a mooning longing for physical intimacy. That existed, of course, but is not what I consider, quote, love, unquote. I was in love because I desperately wanted a continuing and, if possible, lifelong companionship where we could each pursue our aims and interests; together, if possible, but separately, if necessary – though even in the latter case, each with the interest and support of the other.
I have a theory about most people (most straights anyway) understanding the word as a synonym for a different word, ‘lust’, but I’ve already digressed too far from the topic…