Sweet Thursday is a sequel to Cannery Row. Like many novelists who revisit a beloved character, setting, or theme, Steinbeck struggles to do something original with his material. One discovers from the Prologue that Steinbeck himself is aware of this call to innovation.
“I’d like to have a couple of words at the top so it tells me what the chapter’s going to be about,” he adds.
In addition to chapter headings, Mack wants good clean honest dialogue, too, the kind that lets readers see what characters look like from the way they talk.
Steinbeck, with his gift for dialogue, certainly obliges on this front. It’s easy to hear the different qualities of men at work in their speech. “Maybe that’s what he was afraid of,” said Doc. “Lee wrote to me about it. I couldn’t advise him — I was too far away — so he was safe.”
“You can’t never find out what a Chinks got on his mind…” said Mack. “Why do you suppose he done it…? It was those goddamn movies that done it.”
Once or twice Steinbeck loses control of Mack who, inexplicably, sings a Shakespearean song: “Doc, let’s concealment like a worm in the bud feed on his damask cheek.” Hardly plausible but at least we know something’s eating Doc, our protagonist.
Set in Monterey, California, Doc is a marine biologist and a kind and intelligent man. He returns to Cannery Row after the war and discovers that its quirky denizens have changed—and that he’s changed, too. He’s lonely and restless and discontent. He feels himself a failure—he’s without a woman, and an idea for a scientific paper is stuck in his head, and won’t be knocked loose.
Like Cannery Row, the action of Sweet Thursday is advanced by a simple mechanism: Doc’s friends want to do him a good turn, so they throw him a party, but things go terribly and comically awry. Steinbeck offers a very slight complication to this mechanism. Although there’s one party, there are two groups of friends trying to achieve different goals. One group is raising money to buy him a microscope so he can get to work on his paper, while the other group presents Suzy, a sweet, stubborn prostitute, as his bride so he can find love. The quest to unify mind and body results in double trouble.
Although Cannery Row is a better novel than Sweet Thursday, Steinbeck does make an interesting use of place and location, and the activities commonly associated with them—the grocery store where food and beer are bought; Western Biological Laboratories where science happens; the Palace Flophouse where the homeless sleep and tell stories; and the Bear Flag where men and prostitutes have sex. Not at home in the world, Doc drifts uneasily between these places, confused.
Of all the locations in Cannery Row, the most intriguing one is the old abandoned boiler. That’s where Suzy takes up residence to reinvent herself. And that’s where Doc finally courts her in earnest. Unlike other places in Cannery Row, the boiler is unique because it’s not associated with any characteristic activities.
It’s set apart from them. Like a chrysalis where one become who one is.
As both Suzy and Doc discover.