Sweet Thursday

Sweet Thursday – John Steinbeck

It must be over half a century ago since I read Cannery Row, but I never got round to read Steinbeck’s 1954 sequel, Sweet Thursday. Unlike the first book where Steinbeck’s focus was on the place, here the individuals who scratch out their existence in Cannery Row are centre stage. The structure of the book is more conventional with a narrative and story line that moves in a linear direction. It is also very funny.

Most, but not all, of the characters we met in Cannery Row appear in Sweet Thursday. They are older, although hardly wiser, and some of them have fought in the Second World War. Doc, the central protagonist, has returned an angrier, changed man, probably suffering from what we would now call PTSD, and finds that his business has been run into the ground in his absence. He is obsessed with the idea of writing a paper on the behaviour of octopi but spends most of his time in a battle of wills with a blank pad of paper.

Although the residents of Cannery Row are a rag-bag collection of ne’er do wells, confidence tricksters, pimps, and whores, they are imbued with an indefatigable sense of community and are anxious to help each other. Their mission is to improve Doc’s lot, by fixing a raffle to ensure that he wins the Palace Flophouse, to pair him up with the new woman on the block, Suzy, and to provide him with the best scientific equipment so that he can write his paper.

Inevitably, and hilariously, the best laid plans of mice and men founder through their incompetence. Doc already owns the Flophouse and instead of providing him with the powerful microscope he needs, they get him a telescope instead. Despite their ham-fisted attempts to better Doc’s lot, Cupid’s arrow has a surer aim.

In one sense the book is a simple and charming, light-hearted love story, not only a paean to Doc and Suzy’s developing relationship but to the characters that populate Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s humour verges on the corny and is extremely visual, almost slapstick. But there is a darker seam running through the book. Characters pick fights, break bones and almost strangle each other while Doc, in his darker moments, torments his octopi to such an extent that they almost die. The book seems to veer alarmingly between these two extremes before righting itself by the end.

For all their many faults, it is the endearing humanity of the residents of Cannery Row that shines out. Fauna, the local madame, has a side-line in fortune telling and tells Hazel that his destiny is to be the President of the United States. Harvey is weighed down by the burden of his destiny to such an extent that Fauna has to hold another fortune telling session where she reveals, surprise, surprise, that her previous prophecy was mistaken. Hazel is greatly relieved and can settle back into his humdrum existence.

It is a delightful book, funny, easy to read and whilst it is not one of Steinbeck’s best, it holds its own against the works of his contemporaries. To get the most out of the book, though, you should not leave a gap of half a century between reading Cannery Row and picking up Sweet Thursday.

And the title? It is the name the residents give to Thursdays, sandwiched between Lousy Wednesday and Waiting Friday. As you will see, the definitive action of the book occurs on a Thursday.

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