Mack and the boys - A group of down-and-out but always scheming men who live together in the run-down fish-meal shack, owned by Lee Chong, which they call the Palace Flophouse and Grill. Mack is their ringleader, a smart, charismatic man who can charm anyone into anything; as one of the boys says, Mack could be president of the United States if he wanted to be, but he wouldn't want to do anything like that that wasn't fun. Mack's attempts to do things the easy way and to his advantage often get him into trouble. Eddie, another of the boys, is a substitute bartender at La Ida, the local bar. He brings home stolen bottles and a jug filled with remnants from customers' drinks; this makes him immensely popular all around. Hazel is perhaps the hardest-working of the boys: He often accompanies Doc on collecting trips. Ironically, though, the narrative claims he was too lazy to pick up real criminal habits as a boy. He got his name because his overworked mother didn't notice what his gender was when he was born. Gay lives with the boys because his wife beats him. He is often at the local bar or in jail as a result of brawls with his wife. Gay is a gifted mechanic who can make any vehicle run.
Dora Flood - The local madam; proprietor of the Bear Flag Restaurant, a brothel. Dora is a huge woman with bright orange hair and flamboyant clothes. She runs a tight ship - her girls aren't allowed to drink or talk to men on the street - but she is kindhearted and generous. She paid the grocery bills for many local families during the Depression, and she organizes an aid effort during the influenza epidemic. She is always in danger of being shut down by the authorities, so she must watch her step and do twice as much charitable giving as anyone else.
Lee Chong - The Chinese grocer of the Row. Lee Chong's store stocks absolutely everything, and he is willing to engage in almost any transaction, provided it's profitable and risk-free. Sometimes, however, his calculations prove to be wrong, as the business with Mack and the frogs shows. Lee Chong is a shrewd, even occasionally manipulative, businessman but also good-hearted; he extends credit generously, tries to take care of the unfortunate, helps with the parties for Doc, and even arranged for his grandfather to be disinterred and reburied in his homeland.
Frankie - A mentally handicapped boy who is neglected by his mother and taken in by Doc. Frankie is incapable of doing any work; he just seems to do everything a little bit wrong. He loves Doc, though, and frequently tells him so. Frankie is institutionalized after breaking in to a jewelry store to steal a gift for Doc. Frankie can be compared to Benjy in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or to Lenny in Steinbeck's own Of Mice and Men.
Henri - The local artist and a friend of Doc's. Although he pretends to be, Henri is not actually French. He keeps up on the latest trends from Paris and is always forming new sets of principles (e.g., no red paint, chicken feathers only) by which to do his work. No one is certain about Henri's artistic abilities, but everyone agrees he's doing a beautiful job building his boat, which is up on blocks in a vacant lot. The boat will never be finished because Henri is afraid of the ocean, but, more importantly, it is his life's work. A series of women come and go from the boat.
Welcome to Cannery Row, where everyone's pretty poor and friendships are close. The major players here are Lee Chong, who owns the grocery store; Mack and the boys, bums who live on his property; Dora, the madam of the local brothel; and Doc, the guy who owns the Western Biological Lab. You know, your basic five-man band.
Everyone on Cannery Row likes Doc. He's always got advice, a sympathetic ear, and something interesting to tell you about, so, obviously, Mack and the boys decide to throw Doc a party.
But first, they need money. So, they hatch a scheme to capture a whole bunch of frogs, which they'll sell to Doc for five cents each. Their scheme works and soon they're rolling in ... frogs. And nickels. They get everything they need for a rocking party, and set up at Doc's before he arrives back that night from a trip. Doc comes back later than expected to find his place empty, but completely trashed.
After a low period for all of Cannery Row, Mack and the boys get it together to throw Doc another party, one that he can actually attend. They do it right this time, and Cannery Row pulls out the stops to make it one stupendous party. And it is. The book ends as Doc, happy but maybe a little wistful, too, cleans up after the big shindig.