Cannery Row opens with a small set piece that functions almost like a landscape painting; the mood of the place is carefully described, most of the major characters are seen strolling across the screen, and the general tone of the story is set. The introduction ends with a description of how Steinbeck has written this book: He has captured something not easily described in words by just "let[ting] the stories crawl in by themselves."
The novel proper begins with a description of Lee Chong's grocery store, a tiny shop where one can buy anything except female companionship, which can be found across the street at Dora's brothel. The grocery store is particularly important to the community as a place to buy cheap whiskey ("Old Tennis Shoes"). Lee Chong has done well by being clever and serving his customers' needs. He is fairly generous with credit, only withholding it when a customer's debts get truly out of hand. One customer who found himself in such a situation was Horace Abbeville. Horace had two wives and six children and quite a debt. One day, he came to Lee Chong's and offered to settle the debt by signing over a fish-meal storage shed that he owned to the grocer. Lee Chong agreed and drew up the paperwork. Horace, now free of financial obligations, returned home and shot himself. Feeling guilty, Lee Chong has done his best ever since to take care of Abbeville's family. The fish-meal shack presented a problem to the grocer, however. He was pondering what to do with it when Mack, the leader of a small group of unemployed roustabouts, came to see him. Mack proposed that Lee Chong let him and his friends live in the shack for a nominal rent. Knowing that Mack and the boys will undoubtedly vandalize the shack if he refuses, Lee Chong agrees, even though he knows that he will never see a penny of rent. The arrangement works out well, as Mack and the boys provide protection for the grocery and even stop stealing from the store out of gratitude. The old fish-meal shack has become known, sarcastically, as the Palace Flophouse and Grill. Mack and the boys spend most of their time stealing furnishings for their new home and painting them to disguise their origins.
Mack and the boys also contemplate doing something nice for Doc, who runs the Western Biological Laboratory across the street. As Doc walks across to Lee Chong's to buy some beer, the narrative digresses into a poetic contemplation of the characters we have met so far. Lee Chong is shown to be tough-headed but soft-hearted; he has dug up the bones of his grandfather and had them sent back to China to be buried in the old man's home soil. Mack and the boys are held up as ideals: While they are not ambitious, they also avoid many of the anxieties of modern life and are able to live each day in peace and a kind of sensuous richness. God must admire and protect people like Mack, the narrative claims.
Across a vacant lot from Lee Chong's is Dora's brothel, the Bear Flag Restaurant (named after the state flag). Dora, an enormous woman with orange hair and a taste for flamboyant clothes, runs an upstanding establishment. She makes sure all of her girls are well-behaved and well cared for, and she maintains her position in the town through generous charitable contributions and careful behavior. During the Depression, she was particularly active in helping others, feeding many of the families in the area and paying their bills at Lee Chong's. The narrative digresses again to tell the story of William, the former bouncer at the Bear Flag. William was never able to make friends and always thought that others saw him as a "dirty pimp." One day, in a fit of despair, he stabbed himself to death. The bouncer now is Alfred, a popular fellow.
The narrative interrupts itself once again to sketch another little picture. This one describes an elderly "Chinaman" who walks through Cannery Row every day at dusk and again at dawn on his way to and from harvesting marine animals below the piers. His sandals make a slapping noise as he walks; this sound alerts the locals to his passing. The Chinaman is inscrutable and a little scary; no one has ever spoken to him except one little boy, who once sang a song full of racial slurs at the old man. The old man stopped and fixed him with a stare and the boy nearly lost consciousness. Since then, no one has bothered the Chinaman.
The first chapters of this book are largely concerned with painting a picture of a specific time and place. Steinbeck is more interested in the community as a whole and the way that an individual character's behavior is judged by the community than he is in the specific actions of that character. In other words, this is not a book about plot; it's a novel where setting and atmosphere take precedence. This aligns Steinbeck with some of the "local color" or regional writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Steinbeck is less like someone like Sarah Orne Jewett, who was interested in depicting local ways of life and the conflict between outlying regions and metropolitan areas, and more like someone like William Faulkner, who wrote novels dominated by a sense of place and who attempted to sketch a community of co-dependent people rather than a series of independent psyches. His alignment with regional writing can be seen most strongly, though, by comparing him to someone like Hemingway, whose novels show people far from home who really don't connect with their surroundings or by placing him next to Fitzgerald, whose novels, while precise in describing their surroundings, could take place anywhere. By refusing to write about "everyman" type figures the way Hemingway and Fitzgerald do, Steinbeck also signals that he will not be writing about the "American dream," at least not in any straightforward way. It is as if he is saying to his reader, "No, this couldn't happen to you, not unless you come to Cannery Row and leave your previous life behind." This allows Steinbeck, paradoxically, to be more utopian (albeit in a perverse way) in his thinking: Mack and the boys and Dora the benevolent madam are fictional enough to remain ideal, and we are not forced to confront their very real flaws.