Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck
I’m going through a bit of a phase of trying to plug some obvious gaps in my literary knowledge. After all, I don’t want to be sitting on a cloud and being asked, during a break in harp practice, whether I have read much Steinbeck. Fortunately, Penguin Modern Classics came to my aid a while back by offering Kindle versions of his novels for £0.99 a go and so this is the first of two that I selected.
In many ways it is appropriate that I chose Tortilla Flat which, although it was his fifth novel, published in May 1935, it was the one that made his name. The reviews were favourable, it began to sell well and Steinbeck was able to sell the film rights. It is easy to see why. It is a humorous collection of essentially shaggy dog stories, written with a light touch and imbued with an easy sense of whimsical humour. The characterisation is strong and the style is no-nonsense.
The book focuses on a group of ne’er do well Mexican-Indian-Spanish Americans, known as paisanos, who eke out an existence in Tortilla Flat near Monterey in California. They are work-shy, have voracious appetites for wine, argue and fight with each other but somehow, perhaps because they have no other option, rub along together in a communal house. Think of hippies without the drugs.
The glue which holds the book and the community together is Danny, who, upon his return from the Great War, finds that he has inherited a couple of houses from his dead grandfather. This good fortune raises Danny’s stock in the eyes of his fellow paisanos and he soon collects a motley collection of picaresque characters who vow their allegiance to him but at the same time see him as a bit of a gravy train. The book relays the tales of their life together.
It is easy to see some obvious Arthurian parallels in the story. King Arthur was a commoner, elevated to royalty by his ability to remove a sword from a stone. Like Arthur Danny initially has trouble getting his followers to meet their obligations but eventually wins them round, winning their undying pledges of loyalty. Danny’s house is a round table manqué and the Catholic symbolism which imbues Mallory’s tale is found in spades in Steinbeck’s novel.
There are many moments when the reader will find a smile cross their face as they race through the pages and there are pieces of superb comedy. I particularly liked the story of the Pirate who had pledged a gold cross to St Francis upon the miraculous recovery of his dog from some illness, the task of collecting the thousand dollars necessary becoming a life’s work. The dog, however, was run over a few weeks later. And the story of the woman who was given a vacuum cleaner, without a motor (natch), which she dutifully pushes around her house. If you have a status symbol, you have to flaunt it.
But, rather like Henry IV, uneasy lies the crown on Danny’s head. He is a man to whom responsibility is anathema and the book, on another level, portrays his descent into despair and culminates in a deeply tragic and moving finale. Again, all of this is done with an incredibly light touch.
There are some troubling aspects with the book. Was Steinbeck racist in his portrayal of the paisanos? Even the author had doubts when he saw how his characters were viewed as nothing more than good-for-nothing bums. Women are portrayed either as objects of lust or little more than domestic skivvies. And there is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. But, as I have often said, we impose our values on literature at our peril.
If you want an introduction to Steinbeck, this is probably as good a book as you could find to dip your toe in the water.