The story is about the skid row citizens of Monterey, California, set on the row during World War II. As declining fish stocks are shutting down a previously rich fishery and the dependent canning industry, bums and hookers lead colorful and adventurous lives in a balmy seaside setting.
Doc, a self-employed marine biologist, lives in a dockside warehouse and researches octopi. Suzy DeSoto, a girl from the local bordello, is working there only out of necessity and doesn't cover her feelings very well.
A collection of linked vignettes describe the locals and life on Cannery Row. It is depicted as an impoverished area inhabited by a motley band of people who have experienced failures but somehow have found their niche and a community of strangely kindred souls.
Doc and Suzy don’t quite fit in, but are accepted. Even when good intentions turn bad -- e.g., Mac and the boys gather frogs and sell them to give a surprise party for Doc, which turns into a brawl breaking Doc’s microscope -- they make things right by replacing it with a telescope.
The deeper mystery and message revolves around why Doc stays in Cannery Row. Suzy discovers that Doc was once a professional baseball pitcher but quit. Another character, the Seer, spends his days playing his horn and depends on the gifts that mysteriously appear for him (like groceries). Suzy eventually puts the pieces together and understands that the Seer is another baseball player that Doc injured with a pitch to the ...