Cannery Row by John Steinbeck was published in 1945 and is set during the great depression, but is significantly less depressing than some of his other novels.
It technically has a bit of a plot but it mostly reads like a series of interlinked short stories or vignettes about the deadbeats, the general store, the prostitutes who need to be seen as good members of the community so the whorehouse isn’t closed down. Yes, there’s some violence and a lot of alcohol but it’s pretty nice for the most part, really sharp descriptions of brief moments in time. I don’t think for a moment that it’s a historically accurate view of the time or the place, but you don’t mind when you read it. It’s a pretty quick read too and I’d really recommend it, but then I do highly rate Steinbeck so I accept I’m biased.
One of the main characters is Doc, the marine biologist. Every so often he’ll need to collect frogs or little octopi or suchlike, so he’ll go on a road trip. On one particular road trip he decides to order a beer milkshake because someone recently said to him
“You love beer so much. I’ll bet some day you’ll go in and order a beer milkshake.” It was a simple piece of foolery, but it had bothered Doc ever since. He wondered what a beer milkshake would taste like. The idea gagged him, but he couldn’t leave it alone. It cropped up every time he had a glass of beer. Would it curdle the milk? Would you add sugar? It was like a shrimp ice cream. Once the thing got into your head you couldn’t forget it.
I beg to differ – I don’t reckon I’ll try a beer milkshake or a shrimp ice cream, thanks – but Doc decides he’s going to give it a go.
But there’s a problem, and not just the fact that it sounds disgusting. His problem is that he has a beard.
If a man ordered a beer milkshake, he thought, he’s better do it in a town where he wasn’t known. But then, a man with a beard, ordering a beer milkshake in a town where he wasn’t known – they might call the police. A man with a beard was always a little suspect anyway. You couldn’t say you wore a beard because you like a beard. People didn’t like you for telling the truth. You had to say you had a scar, so you couldn’t shave.
So he comes up with an ingenious lie.
Doc knew wearily that he couldn’t explain, couldn’t tell the truth. “I’ve got a bladder complaint,” he said. “Bipalychaetsonectomy, the doctors call it. I’m supposed to drink a beer milkshake. Doctor’s orders.”
It works – he’s served and the police aren’t called. Want to know what it tasted like?
[I]t wasn’t so bad – it just tasted like stale beer and milk.
I don’t know how much research Steinbeck did into that bit so I don’t know how accurate that description is, but you know what? I have no intention to check it out.
(Unless otherwise stated, I get a small commission if you buy through one of these links)