Cannery Row


John Steinbeck

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Cannery Row: Chapter 19 Summary & Analysis

The flag-pole skater is the most successful promotional stunt Holman’s Department Store has ever done, driving in business from all over. “It was generally agreed, however, that a steel rod came up through the center of the platform at night and he strapped himself to it,” Steinbeck says, though he adds that no one seems to care. On his second day, the skater says that someone is shooting him with a BB gun, and the staff at Holman’s finds an old doctor shooting an air rifle from his office window. Meanwhile, Henri watches the skater almost religiously, deciding that he must build himself a platform and try the stunt. Indeed, everyone is captivated by this attraction—everyone, that is, except Mack and “the boys,” who don’t see the appeal. 
It’s worth paying attention to the fact that Mack and “the boys” aren’t interested in the flag-pole skater. This is most likely because they don’t care about money, except as an immediate means to an end. Since the flag-pole skater is first and foremost a promotional tactic to drive business into Holman’s Department Store, they see the stunt for what it is: a desperate plea to convince people to part with their money.
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One night, a “high-strung and brilliant young man” gets drunk and later jumps out of bed after having a fight with his wife. Going to Holman’s he shouts up at the skater, saying, “Hey! How—how do you—go to the toilet?” In response, the skater says, “I’ve got a can up here.” With this, the young man goes home and gets back into bed.
Although this short anecdote has little to do with Cannery Row’s narrative or thematic development, it’s worth mentioning because it showcases the fact that Steinbeck is committed to simply telling stories about the people who live in Cannery Row, regardless of whether or not his vignettes do anything to fuel the broader framework of the text. In this way, readers see that his decision to “open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves” isn’t just a gimmick, but a genuine attempt to represent the random array of human moments that define a community and life itself.
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