Cannery Row is the fourth Steinbeck book I have read so far, and it certainly wont be the last. With each one I have read I have come to like his writing more and more. He has a way of being descriptive enough to create an interesting and tangible world of sights and smells and sounds without loosing my interest. I don't like characters because he tells me to. I like them because he shows them to me. I can see Cannery Row as if I have been looking at a photograph: Lee Chong's store, Bear Flag Restaurant, Sam Malloy's boiler house, the Palace Flophouse, and Western Biological.
In college I read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and loved it. Evidently Steinbeck loved it too because this book is written in the same flavor as Winesburg--an array of characters held together by place, influence, and interaction rather than through plot. There is a loose plot to this story, but the plot (trying to pull off a party for Doc) is secondary to people and place. Even the people are subservient to "place." There are characters that only appear for one chapter, unconnected with any of the events, never to be seen or heard from again. Some people might find this kind of thing annoying, but I don't see it that way. The main character of the book is the Row and each person and event that we are introduced to helps us understand the Row better. Imagine you are driving through a small town on your way to another destination. You stop and ask for directions, meeting a friendly old lady in the process. You may never see that little old lady again, but you will probably think kind thoughts of that town should you drive through it again. I feel that the same is true of Cannery Row (or Winesburg, Ohio for that matter).