Books have their own sweet spot. Some arrive too late (the window for The Catcher in the Rye is narrow; read it after the age of 16, and chances are you’ll notice that it’s a shallow, narcissistic whine) and some too soon: I was put off the whole of Russian literature by too early an encounter with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But others have perfect pitch and perfect timing, and recalling your first encounter is like remembering a summer day from your teens. They’re the books that lodge in your heart while it’s still wide open, and they become the platform for the reading you’ll do ever after.
I read enough at that age to have a fairly wide platform, even if it’s one whose strength I’ve not often tested in the intervening years. Nobody wants to discover that they’re walking on rotting woodwork. But circumstances recently reintroduced me to John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday after a thirty-year gap, and I’m happy to say that, on a rereading, I felt nothing give beneath my feet. All these years later, it still bears weight.
Sweet Thursday, published in 1954, is a sequel to Cannery Row (1945). Both are set in the Californian town of Monterey, once a bright and bustling place whose canning industry meant that the locals could always find employment when all else failed, but which in the post-war years – ‘when all the pilchards were caught and canned and eaten’ – has become a sleepy backwater, no part of which is dozier than Cannery Row itself, where the same few dollars make the same regular journeys between saloon and grocery and brothel, everyone owes money to somebody else, and nobody’s really keeping score.
The Row’s main citizens are Doc, a marine biologist and natural born philosopher who runs Western Biological Laboratories, and Mack and the boys, who live in the Palace Flophouse and get by on charm and petty larceny, but dozens of others – cops and barflies, artists and plumbers, boun
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