Partying down at the Palace

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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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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, bouncers and beach bums – stray on and off the page. Allowing for a few lost to war and other mischances, the same characters populate both books, whose plots, if plots they have, are whisper-thin. In Cannery Row, Mack and the boys decide to do something nice for Doc: this turns out to be a party. Unfortunately the party happens when Doc’s not around, and ends with his laboratory a mess of shattered glass and broken furniture. Everyone on the Row feels bad about this, and the gloom that settles only shifts when Mack and the boys decide to do something nice for Doc. This turns out to be a party . . .

There’s more to Sweet Thursday, but not much – a new girl called Suzy arrives in town, Doc falls for her, and everyone does their best to make sure romance blossoms, which creates more obstacles than it removes. That ‘new girl’ in this context means ‘hooker’, adding a layer of grim realism – Steinbeck knew about poverty, and the narrow choices it enforces – but Sweet Thursday takes place in a different world to The Grapes of Wrath, and Suzy’s a sex worker in the same way that the guys in Guys and Dolls were gangsters. People get killed, sure, but nobody actually gets hurt. (Damon Runyon’s On Broadway is another of the planks in my platform.) There’s sadness aplenty in both books, and an awareness that some lives are damaged beyond repair, but it’s a sadness that offers itself up for consolation, to be found in the company of fellow human beings, and in drink, and sex, and riotous behaviour. These books celebrate the rackety nature of life, and as such are far bigger than their slim spines suggest.

And if plot is largely absent, that’s not to say that there’s not plenty of incident. An unlucky horoscope reading dooms Hazel, one of Mack’s boys, to become President of the United States; luckily, this turns out to be inaccurate. A couple living in a boiler in a vacant lot make a decent enough home out of it, though their bid for domesticity breaks down with an attempt to put up curtains in the windowless cavity. Frogs are hunted; fights are fought. A neighbouring town, Pacific Grove, descends into civil war when a local philanthropist gifts it two roque courts, roque being ‘a complicated kind of croquet’. Fauna, the owner – previously a mission worker called Flora – pins gold stars on the wall of the Bear Flag brothel, one for each of ‘her girls’ who marries well: ‘My young ladies go places.’ And Mack and the boys conspire to keep the grocery’s new owner from realizing that he also now owns the Palace Flophouse by raffling it and ensuring that Doc holds the winning ticket, a conspiracy marred only by their failure to realize that their previous landlord had deeded them the property before leaving town. (‘Doc, would you do me the favor?’ Mack asks. ‘Don’t tell the boys.’)

As with other Steinbeck novels, then, one of the delights of both books is that they’re filled with characters more usually found in the margins: they’re bit-part players elevated to leading roles because their author, like most sensible readers, would rather hang out with sinners than saints. Not that the doings of Mack and the boys are especially venal. The language is gently bowdlerized (‘Why don’t you take a flying fuggut the moon?’ one character invites another), while the parameters of the dishonesty on display are carefully adjusted to take account of who its victims might be. And in their ready acceptance of the blows life delivers, the denizens of Cannery Row acquire a tattered grace that, in the right light, resembles heroism.

This is a necessary virtue: if life isn’t brutal on Cannery Row, it can sometimes be harsh. Suicide and sadness are part of the human comedy, and frog-hunting is as sacred a ritual as anything organized religion has to offer. The characters are as apt to express their love for each other as they are to pile into a fist-fight but they know that a good fist-fight is worth travelling miles for. That people are poor or homeless or have sex for money does not render them unworthy of respect, and the kindness of the community holds all in its embrace.

Steinbeck, who wrote a version of the tales of King Arthur, recognized honour when he found it, and lays it out here in shop-soiled form. And none of his knights are more honourable than Doc, because Sweet Thursday is also an elegy, and Doc is based on Steinbeck’s great friend and scientific mentor Ed Ricketts, who was alive when Cannery Row was written but who died when his car was hit by a train on a level crossing. If a rock-and-roll death is a plane crash, a train wreck is a truly literary departure. So the affection that seeps out of the novel has its roots in a real-world love; Steinbeck was allowing a happy ending, a continuation, for a friend.

And en route to that ending there are wonderful comic moments, one of the set pieces being Sweet Thursday’s fancy dress party. (There are a lot of parties; these people know how to have fun.) This particular event has two aims; to allow Doc to end up with the winning ticket in the Palace Flophouse raffle, and to ensure that he and Suzy realize they are made for each other. To this end, Mack and the boys bribe a child dressed as Eros – ‘I’m Cupid, God of Love, and I draw a bead on unsuspecting hearts’ – to target the happy couple. The conversation, a masterpiece of comic timing and phrasing, is one I’ve often recalled when contemplating how to construct dialogue:

‘I want thirty-five cents,’ said Johnny.

‘What!’

‘If I don’t get thirty-five cents I’ll tell.’

‘Mack,’ said Whitey No. 2, ‘this here kid’s jumped the price.’ ‘Give it to him,’ said Mack. ‘I’ll flip him double or nothing later.’

‘Not with that two-headed nickel you won’t,’ said Johnny.

‘Seems like kids got no respect for their elders nowadays,’ Eddie observed. ‘If I ever said that, my old man would of clobbered me.’

‘Maybe your old man wasn’t rigging no raffle,’ said Johnny.

Whitey No. 1 said, ‘This kid ain’t honest. You know where bad kids go, Johnny?’

‘I sure do, and I been there,’ said Johnny.

‘Give him the thirty-five cents,’ said Mack.

That’s more or less seared into my mind, but in rereading both books, I found that every other page I had an awareness of what was coming next: not simply a scene or an event, but an actual phrase or sentence. And I was right every time. These novels are embedded in my heart.

So why did Sweet Thursday, and Cannery Row too, land so hard? Perhaps because it was the first time I’d met such people in books. I’ve always had a strong romantic streak, but I was probably more attuned to Jane Austen characters than to these beautifully rendered lowlifes: the jobless, the dreamers, the drinkers. I don’t know if these books made me want to be a writer, but they certainly made the life of a shiftless layabout seem attractive, and what are novels for, if not to open our eyes to the alternative lives on offer? So in honour of Doc, Mack, Suzy and the rest, I’m calling it a day now, at 11.23 in the morning. And I’m going to drink beer in the sunshine.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Mick Herron 2020


About the contributor

Mick Herron’s fictional spies – the Slow Horses – wouldn’t look out of place in the Palace Flophouse. But Mick himself lives in Oxford and has no plans to raffle his home any time soon.

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