Cannery Row is a street populated by canning factories in Monterey, California. Wondering how he can accurately portray what it’s like to live in this place, Steinbeck decides to simply “let the stories crawl in by themselves,” thus beginning a collection of loosely related vignettes. Although there are too many narrative moments to detail here, the following storylines are the most cohesive and important threads of Cannery Row.
Steinbeck describes the landmarks of Cannery Row, calling attention to a squalid but efficient grocery store run by Lee Chong. Lee’s store is a cultural hub, as everyone does their shopping amongst his crowded shelves. In particular, Mack and his group of drifter friends often visit and try to convince Lee to give them pints of whiskey, though they never have money. Because of this, Lee is unsurprised when Mack comes in one day after a local man named Horace Abbeville commits suicide. The day he killed himself, Horace came into Lee’s store and told him he wanted to settle his outstanding debt. As such, he signed ownership of his fishmeal storehouse to Lee, left the grocery store, and committed suicide. Having heard about this, Mack asks Lee if he and his friends can move into the storehouse, pointing out that if the building is unoccupied, teenagers might break the windows or set it on fire. Lee realizes he has no choice but to allow these men to move in, since he knows that if he refuses, they will break the windows themselves to prove that he should let them live there. Lee gives Mack what he wants, but not before setting the price at five dollars. With this, Mack and his friends move into the storehouse and name it the Palace Flophouse, and Lee Chong never receives a cent.
The Palace Flophouse and Lee Chong’s grocery store aren’t the only notable landmarks in Cannery Row. There’s also the Bear Flag Restaurant, a brothel run by Dora Flood, whose establishment is a “decent, clean, honest, old-fashioned sporting house where a man can take a glass of beer among friends.” Indeed, Steinbeck describes the Bear Flag as “virtuous,” depicting it as yet another social hotspot. Unfortunately, though the prostitutes themselves are all content, not everyone who works there is happy. Steinbeck tells a story about the brothel’s former watchman, a man named William who was a “lonesome” fellow. One day, William saw Mack and the boys sitting outside, so he went to join them. When he sat down, though, all conversation ceased. When William left, Mack and the boys started chatting again, and this depressed William. Because of this, he went to Dora and said, “I feel lousy. I think I’ll bump myself off,” to which she said, “Well, do it on your own time and don’t mess up the rugs.” After having a similar interaction with one of the prostitutes, William went to the house’s Greek cook, who told him that people who talk about committing suicide never actually do it. Hearing this, William grabbed the cook’s ice pick and he drove it into his own heart. Now there is a new watchman, Steinbeck notes, a man named Alfred whom everyone likes much better than William.
Another important place in Cannery Row is Western Biological, a laboratory in which Doc—a marine biologist—lives and works. Doc is well-liked throughout the community, a kind and philosophical person who often takes Hazel—one of Mack’s gang—to help him collect marine animals, outings that Hazel enjoys because he likes asking Doc an endless stream of questions. Hazel isn’t the only young man in Cannery Row who likes spending time with Doc. There’s also Frankie, a boy who showed up at Western Biological one day. Frankie is an odd boy, and Doc can tell there’s something off about him, but he treats him well and allows him to sleep in the laboratory in a small box. One day when Doc is having a small party, Frankie grabs a beer from the kitchen and gives it to a woman sitting nearby. After she thanks him, Doc chimes in and says, “Yes, Frankie is a great help to me.” This causes Frankie to swell with such pride and happiness that he tries to replicate the moment the next time Doc has a party. However, this time he attempts to carry an entire tray of beers and ends up spilling them on a guest’s lap, at which point he dashes out of the room and retreats to the basement.
Like Frankie, Mack and the boys also want to do “something nice” for Doc, but they can’t because they don’t have the money to throw him a party. However, they know Doc is always in need of frogs and that he’ll pay a nickel for each one they bring him. As such, Mack visits him and says he and the boys need money for something important, adding that if Doc needs anything, perhaps they could get it for him. Unsurprisingly, Doc says he could “use three or four hundred frogs,” and so Mack agrees to go on a frog-collecting expedition the next day, since Doc himself has to travel to La Jolla in southern California to obtain octopi. Once they agree to this deal, Mack asks if he can borrow Doc’s car, but Doc says he will be using it himself, so Mack goes to Lee Chong and asks to use his truck. Lee says he can’t help Mack or Doc, since his truck is broken, but Mack assures Lee that his friend Gay will be able to fix it, and so Lee agrees.
Mack and the boys successfully fix Lee’s truck, which is a converted Ford Model T. On their way to the place where they plan to catch the frogs, though, they break down, and Gay tells them they need to find a new needle for the carburetor. He sets off to find the part, and the boys don’t see him for 180 days.
Waiting by the roadside for Gay to return, Mack and his friends eventually accept that he isn’t coming back, so Eddie sets off, finds another Model T, steals its carburetor, and puts the new part into Lee’s truck. When they reach their destination, they wait for darkness to fall, since it’s easiest to catch frogs during the night. Eventually, a former military captain and his dog approach them. Holding a shotgun, the captain tells them to vacate his property, but Mack begins talking to him about his dog, noticing that the animal has a nasty wound. Waxing poetic about how much he likes Pointers, Mack tells the captain that he knows how to make an ointment that could heal the wound, and the captain begins to like him, eventually inviting the entire clan back to his house. As Mack applies his balm to the dog’s injury, the captain tells the group about how he’s lonely because his wife is a politician who’s always traveling, and then he gives them large quantities of rare and expensive whiskey. Before long, he becomes quite drunk and gives Mack one of his dog’s puppies. He also helps them harvest hundreds of frogs from his very own pond. In the aftermath of this, the captain and the boys continue drinking, eventually setting fire to the house’s curtains before the captain passes out and Mack decides they should leave before he wakes up.
Meanwhile, Doc makes his way down to La Jolla, stopping frequently for hamburgers and beer. When he arrives, he turns off the car and sleeps until he senses the tides moving out in the morning, when he gathers his materials and makes his way over the slippery rocks. At one point, he sees a flash of whiteness beneath a small amount of water, and when he draws back the seaweed, he stares into the face of a lifeless woman. Stricken, he makes his way back to the beach, where he tells a man to report the body to the police station, saying he doesn’t want the reward that comes along with finding her.
Doc doesn’t get back to Cannery Row until quite late, leaving Mack and the boys ample time to prepare the party. Striking a deal with Lee, Mack convinces him to accept frogs as payment, insisting that Lee will be able to sell these frogs to Doc. Seeing this as an opportunity, Lee overcharges Mack and the boys as they buy decorations and whiskey. However, they become drunk and gradually lose sight of their intention to celebrate Doc. Eventually, they give all of the frogs to Lee, who allows them to put the creatures in Western Biological as long as he himself is there to watch over them. In this manner, Lee Chong, Mack, the boys, and a number of passersby begin partying in Doc’s laboratory long before he arrives, playing records on his phonograph and accidentally trashing the place. By the time Doc returns, the party has dispersed, his prized possessions are broken, and the frogs have all hopped away.
After the disastrous party, Mack apologizes to Doc, but Doc punches him in the lip. However, he soon decides to forget the entire ordeal, and though Mack and the boys don’t fully know it, he leaves behind his anger. Shortly thereafter, the group decides to throw him another party to make up for what they’ve done, so they contrive to give him a surprise birthday party. To do this, Mack tricks Doc into telling him his birthday, though little does he know that Doc—who suspects Mack is up to something—gives him a false date. This time, news of the party spreads far and wide, so that Doc eventually catches wind of the plan. Although he doesn’t like the idea, he decides that he ought to prepare himself, so he orders large quantities of steak and whiskey, knowing that Mack and the boys won’t think to feed the guests. Then, on the day of the party, he pretends to be surprised and settles into the festivities, eventually playing sad records on the phonograph—records that put everyone in a strange, melancholy mood, though no one finds this unpleasant. Standing up after a record finishes, Doc recites an old poem about love and nostalgia, and when he finishes, everyone—including him—feels a “sweet sadness,” which is only broken when a group of sailors burst in, thinking Western Biological is Dora Flood’s whorehouse. When Mack tells them they have the wrong place, they grow frustrated, pointing out that there are multiple prostitutes at the party. In response, Mack and the boys fight the sailors, and even Doc joins in, joyously “flailing about” until police cars come roaring down the road, at which point the sailors depart and everyone hides. Soon the party erupts once more, and when the police officers circle back, they join the fun, as do the sailors.
The next morning, Doc wakes up and surveys the damage. At Lee Chong’s, he buys a quart of beer and tells the grocer that he had a great time. Back at home, he recites the same nostalgic poem he read the night before, at one point tearfully uttering the line, “I know that I have savored the hot taste of life.”