John Steinbeck: Tortilla Flat

In twenty years, it may be plainly remembered that the clouds flamed and spelled DANNY in tremendous letters; that the moon dripped blood; that the wolf of the world bayed prophetically from the mountains of the Milky Way.

And so Danny, John Steinbeck’s Arthurian hero in his novel Tortilla Flat, becomes a legend – to his band of knights and to the people of this impoverished community set above Monterey, California.

In the novel’s introduction, Steinbeck makes the Camelot comparison; however, Danny and his round table have a more morally ambiguous way of life than the Arthur I remember. Steinbeck manages to meld together an innocence to the worldly ways of these men that makes them heroes in their own manner, nevertheless.

Not having a real plot, the novel begins as Danny inherits two houses making room for his friends, Pablo, Pilon, Jesus Maria, The Pirate (and his dogs) and Big Joe Portagee.  One of the funnier scenes early on in the book has the men light a candle for St. Francis in one of the houses. As St. Francis is known for forsaking his worldly possessions, the candle promptly sets the house on fire burning it to the ground – leaving Danny and his friends with only one house. They make do.

Many of the men’s actions have the distinct purpose of obtaining more wine and the cheaper they can get it, the better.  They sit and tell stories to each other with the agreement that the better stories do not have morals or lessons,  as Pablo responds to one of the stories:

‘I like it,’ said Pablo.  ‘I like it because it hasn’t any meaning you can see, and still it does seem to mean something.  I can’t tell what.’

Given that some of Steinbeck’s writing leans toward the plight of the poor and his politics appear to fall into a more socialistic camp (literally and figuratively), I’m not sure he won any political points with this rag-tag group of guys; however, I found the story very enjoyable.



4 responses to “John Steinbeck: Tortilla Flat

  1. Just finished this myself, and I have to say I didn’t enjoy it much at all. The only character I liked was The Pirate and everyone else took advantage of his simple goodness so much I got very annoyed and even a bit angry. But it certainly read quickly!

    • My enjoyment of the novel probably had more to do with how short it was than anything! While I liked it, it’s not Steinbeck’s best. “The Winter of Our Discontent” was very moving to me – even though it was a heavier tale than “Tortilla Flat”.

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