If you can think of setting as character, then Cannery Row is one of my favorite character studies.
This is not a plot-heavy novel. If you ask someone who hasn’t read Cannery Row in a long time what it’s about, they’ll probably say something like “there were some hobos, and this scientist. I think there were frogs. Someone threw a party.”
John Steinbeck described Cannery Row as a love letter to Monterey, California, the fish canning town where he’d lived during the Great Depression. The Monterey Steinbeck depicts, full of hobos, flophouses, and prostitutes, disappeared after the fishing industry collapsed during the 1950s. If not for Cannery Row, this particular snapshot of culture might have been lost forever.
Exercise: Choose a place that you know well and write a description of that place in the style of the opening paragraph of Cannery Row.
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.