Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck is a follow up to Cannery Row, set in Monterey, CA in the post-war 1940’s. I’m going to start off my blog with this book because it may be the first “adult” book I read for pleasure, way back when I was 16 or 17. It’s certainly the longest held book in my own collection. I had read adult books assigned to me in school, but reading just for pleasure? I always loved reading, but school reading assignments generally satisfied that need. I borrowed this paperback copy, along with a couple others, from the library of family friends. The front cover is entirely loosed from the book now, but I keep it together because the artwork is evocative of that California school of artwork in the mid 1950’s. The back cover is lost.
Inside the front cover of this Bantam Classic edition is written, “JOHN STEINBECK is one of America’s major writers. His work is closely identified with his native home, Salinas, California, and reveals his deep concern and love for humanity… He is one of the very few authors ever to win world-wide recognition during his own lifetime.”
The novel is about Doc’s (literally a scientist/doctor who spent the war treating V.D.) post-war return to his Western Biological lab in Monterey, and the life of whores and tramps living in the remains of a collapsed tuna cannery town. Returning from Cannery Row are “the tramps” Mack, Eddie and the two Whiteys, the prostitutes who live at the Bear Flag whorehouse, and Suzy, a girl who makes a home out of a huge empty boiler. Beer and whiskey abound, but doesn’t slow Doc’s desire to pursue his marine life studies, primarily of octopi and starfish. Missing is Lee Chong, the grocery store owner who Doc would buy his beer from in Cannery Row. Suzy becomes a love interest for Doc, but he’s torn between work and love—the analytical, scientific mind versus the human need for love. “Lonesome! The low voice cried in his gut. No one to receive from you or to give to you. No one warm enough and dear enough.”
At 180 pages it’s a quick, light read that is comic, and romantically coastal Californian from Monterey down to La Jolla. It’s the first time I ever heard of eating sea urchin (uni in sushi restaurants).
“He brought a tin box from the fork of a tree, took out a loaf of French Bread. And sliced off two thick slices. Then he brought the sea urchins from a dripping sack, cracked them on a rock, and spread the gonads on the bread. ‘The males are sweet and the females sour. I like to mix the two.’
‘I’ve tasted them,’ said Doc. ‘The Italians eat them. It’s about as strong a protein as you can get. Some people think it’s aphrodisiac.”
Sorry, writers writing about food always gets me, but it’s the kind of book that paints a vivid picture of the tide pools, the lab full of slides, aquariums and pipettes, rusted machinery and decayed shacks of a once thriving industry now rotting in the salty ocean air. And in the character “Mack,” Steinbeck creates a perfect cohort and drinking partner for Doc—equally intelligent but clearly self-“educated” about the world, while Doc’s education is scientific.
Steinbeck occupies a strange place in American Lit. He won the Nobel Prize for Grapes of Wrath for chrissakes, yet despite a long string of several well loved (and well regarded) books and stories, he doesn’t quite seem to get the same respect in universities as the other American titans. I suspect this may be because Steinbeck’s writing style didn’t exactly break any molds the way Hemingway or Faulkner did. But as the inside flap of the book attests, his work is rich in humanity and emotion—usually concerning the experience of the poor and their making do with what they have. And he did it time and time again.
I have re-read the book a couple times since I was 17, and Doc’s study of apoplexy concerning octopi is woven into the story of my third novel. Unfortunately I don’t think this particular copy would survive another reading, but would I spend a rainy day reading this joyful and sad novel again? Absolutely. And anywhere I have driven up and down California, and over the desert mountains, his stories and characters roam on.