The book “Cannery Row” doesn’t have a single storyline that can be described accordingly. The timeline is shifting, there are a lot of interchapters, that are completely unrelated to the main story. Omitting the interchapters and sorting out the timeline, we can get the following picture:
Cannery Row is a poor small town where everyone survives as they can. Lee Chong owns a relatively big grocery shop and is the main seller of grocery in the town. A man named Mack comes to him, speaking on behalf of his group of itinerant men and asking Lee to let them stay for a while in the old abandoned warehouse he possesses. Lee Chong allows it and Mack soon moves into warehouse with the rest of his company. They ironically name their new place to live the Palace Flophouse and Grill. They all are very enthusiastic to repair the building and make it suitable for living. They succeed and feel proud of their work and the look of their new home.
The Palace Flophouse is situated near the town’s brothel named Dora’s Bear Flag Restaurant. Surprisingly, the brothel looks like a cheerful place and is kept well. The current watchman in the brothel is named Alfred - he substituted his predecessor who committed suicide recently out of general despair. Another prominent building nearby is Western Biological, a laboratory of a slightly mad, but sweet Doc, a bearded scientist always immersed in his researches. All the town likes Doc and every dweller of Cannery Row tries to be nice and do good things to him.
One day Doc asks one of Mack’s men named Hazel to collect specimens in the pool. While they chat, Hazel tells Doc about another man who is going to live in the Palace Flophouse. His name is Gay, he was abusive to his wife and constantly finds himself in prison. When Hazel returns, all the Palace inhabitants think what pleasant surprise they can make for Doc. Finally they vote for an idea to make a party for him.
Mack starts the planning and understands that they need quite a lot of money to throw a real surprise party, so he asks Doc for some more jobs for his boys. Doc doesn’t trust Mack fully, he knows that lot of the Palace inhabitants are drunkards and criminals. But he still needs frogs for his researches, so he offers Mack to pay a nickel per one frog caught alive. However, there are no frogs in the pool nearby, so they have to drive elsewhere to get some. They explain Lee Chong that they need the car to fulfill Doc’s order and ask permission to borrow his truck. Lee Chong is wary, but then he learns that Gay is a skilled mechanic, so if something goes wrong he will fix the car on the spot. Having Mack’s promise, Lee Chong gives him the keys.
We see another character: a schoolboy named Frankie who likes to walk around Doc’s lab. He has trouble with coordination and attention, so he no longer attends school. Still, Doc notices him and allows him to help him in the lab. After a while, Frankie starts to like and respect Doc, becoming a kind of his apprentice. He tries his best to make Doc proud. Though his clumsiness still makes Frankie feel ashamed and miserable. Once he dropped a tray with drinks, while serving them to Doc and his friends and was so upset and embarrassed that Doc couldn’t console him for a while.
We return to Mack and his team preparing for the drive. Gay examines the truck and fixes minor issues. But when they start their journey and drive out of Cannery Row, the truck breaks down again. Gay goes to find the spare part somewhere, the rest of the team wait for him but in vain. Via the interchapter we learn that Gay had numerous misfortunes on his way and again ended up in Salinas jail without any of his fault. We return to the main storyline and see another member of the team named Eddie, who went for the detail and brought it. They continue driving.
At night they hear frogs and start their quest. They make a camp on the beach, but then a man approaches them and says that they have to leave immediately. Mack, who is the face of the party and is skilled in diplomacy, starts talking to the man, who he nicknames “the Captain” and quickly befriends him to the point that the Captain invites them all to have a drink together and gives them permission to gather frogs in the pond on his land. He also sees that Mack is charmed by one of his puppies and presents it to his new friend to become Mack’s pet.
In the meantime Doc drives to another direction - to La Jolla - to collect another kind of samples he needs: baby octopi. Doc isn’t a great traveller, he frequently stops to eat and drink, carelessly picks up a hitchhiker and then abandons him in the middle of nowhere when he (correctly) states that Doc shouldn’t drive drunk. Then Doc goes to the diner near the road and orders a beer milkshake. The waitress is shocked but agrees to make the order. Doc is just curious about the taste of such a strange drink. After drinking such a cocktail, he returns to his car and finishes his journey to La Jolla. But when he is collecting octopi, he suddenly sees a dead body of a drowned girl in the water. While Doc returns home he can’t stop thinking about her face.
While Doc is away, Mack returns back to the town with the frogs. They explain Lee Chong what they want to do and he agrees to give them supplies for a party in exchange for frogs, to trade them to Doc when he returns back also. The boys start the preparation, expecting Doc to return that night. They decorate his laboratory, but, seeing that Doc is late, start partying by themselves. At the morning, when Doc is finally back home, he sees his laboratory completely trashed by the drunken inhabitants of the Palace. Furthermore, all of the frogs have run away.
Doc is furious. All his work has been destroyed, the windows are broken, the valuable liquids are poured on the floor and all the lab is dirty as barn, with piles of greasy dishes and empty bottles. Mack tries to apologize and explain themselves, but Doc hits him in anger - maybe for the first time for his life. Mack can knock Doc out by one hit, but he even doesn’t try to defend himself, knowing well that he deserved it. After a while Doc calms down. He even gives Mack a beer to help him with hangover and with a sad sigh starts asking what really happened here.
Even after the explanation of their initially good intents, the town grows suspicious to Mack and his boys. No one wants to hire them anymore, because they wronged Doc and because they now are portrayed as unreliable people who can get drunk and go out of control. Everyone in the Palace now is constantly exhausted, feeling miserable for almost no reasons. The fights and heavy arguments emerge here and there. To make things worse, the puppy, who became a favourite pet of all the Palace and was named Darling, falls ill. This is really serious, so Mack decides to overcome his shame and go to Doc, asking to help Darling. Doc isn’t amused to see Mack again, but he is a kind-hearted person and can’t stand the suffering of a puppy, so he willingly starts treating her. Doc isn’t angry at Mack anymore, he rebuilt his lab and restored his notes. He even carefully tells that he and Muck are the wisest philosophers in all the town.
Doc treats Darling well and she promptly recovers. With the puppy the relationship between the Palace and the rest of Cannery Row go better as well. Still Muck feels that he has to apologize to Doc but doesn’t know how. He decides to ask Dora from brothel for advice and she suggests to throw another party, this time making everything right and not starting it without Doc. Mack remembers that once Doc told him the date of his birthday (not knowing that Doc just picked a random date when Mack asked). So he starts to prepare for a surprise birthday party. All the town knows about it, except Doc who completely forgot both about that talk and the date of his “birthday”, so for him it will be a real surprise party.
Everyone comes to Doc’s house with humble homemade presents and sincere best wishes. Frankie, though, goes too far, trying to steal an expensive clock to give it to Doc. He is caught by the police, but, after an examination, he is sent not to the prison, but to the psychiatric ward. The doctors assume that he has very low level of intelligence and morals, so he needs treatment or, otherwise, he will become dangerous when he hits puberty.
Doc accidentally heard about the party the day before and, seeing it as inevitable, decides to prepare to it in his own way - by buying more food and alcohol and locking away everything that can be broken, stolen or spoiled in any other way. But, unlike the first attempt, this party starts very well. Everyone is slightly shy in the beginning, but soon the townsfolk relax and the party becomes a great, lively and sincere event that brings joy for everyone who attended it. All the night they dance, eat, drink and challenge each other to fight just for fun. Doc even gets courage to read his poem aloud to all the guests. The poem is sad and is dedicated to the lost love, so it makes everyone feel bittersweet for a while. But then the party continues and people have fun again.
In the morning, during the cleanup, Doc seems happy. He still hears music in his head and is silently reciting the poem again.