Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Source of book: I own this.

Tortilla Flat was Steinbeck’s first real success. Set in Monterey, California, and telling a story of people on the edges of society, it is in many ways a precursor to Cannery Row, which shares many of its themes and elements. However, it is not quite the same book, despite the similarities.

The particular characters that Steinbeck creates are all “paisanos.” Which is a mix of Mexican, Spanish, Native American, and Caucasian - people who have occupied California since long before it became part of the United States. Not quite as aristocratic as the Californios, the great Mexican-Spanish landholders and luminaries of the Spanish and Mexican periods. Well, not even close. By the time this book is set, they were more like the typical Californian drifter sorts who worked when they had to, and not when they didn’t. In this sense, they are strongly related to Mack and his buddies in that latter book.

In Tortilla Flat, Danny is the leader of the pack, and is intentionally written as a (literally) poor man’s King Arthur. He inherits two houses from his grandfather, in the part of Monterey known then as Tortilla Flat - which is not flat at all, but a hillside - but is the home of the paisanos and other down-and-out sorts.

The story starts off with Danny. He inherits, and gets drunk. Then, he starts collecting friends - the various knights of the Round Table, so to speak. They too share Danny’s love for leisure, companionship, and as much red wine as they can purchase, barter, or steal.

Danny is the rich man, naturally, as he has two houses. Well, until Pilon (the smartest of the bunch) and Pablo (not so much) accidentally burn down one. This saves Danny the trouble of charging rent, which is never, ever, paid.

There are a host of crazy characters in this book. Pilon is the philosopher. Danny the ringleader. The Pirate as the one productive (and mentally challenged) member of the group. Jesus Maria and Pablo as sidekicks. Big Joe as the brawn of the outfit. And the various women and ordinary townspeople who inhabit their world. 

 The Pirate and his dogs. 
Illustration from the 1942 edition
by Ruth Gannett

In the end, like the Round Table, the group disintegrates, and Danny dies under circumstances which show the depression and mental breakdown that Arthur undergoes at the end of his life.

It is hard to know exactly what to make of this book. On the one hand, like Cannery Row, which is a more focused book (in my opinion), it is full of interesting and amusing incidents. On the other, it indulges in some kind of unfortunate stereotyping of Mexican-Americans. The group lives to get drunk and sit around shooting the bull. They steal anything not bolted down. The women seem to get pregnant by multiple men, and be sexually loose at most times.

So, it’s complicated. That’s one reason that I find Cannery Row to be the better book. It lacks the racial issues, and seems to have a more coherent story arc. However, even in this early effort, Steinbeck shows his skill at writing. Whether or not you like the stories he tells (and I know people who hate Steinbeck), it is hard to ignore just how skilled he is at telling them. Every book I read of his, I marvel at how compact yet evocative his descriptions are, how he can take a single sentence and make a world of it, and how he never feels wordy or long winded. It is a totally different style from other favorite authors: very American, very modern, and more terse. But it is great writing indeed.

Just a few lines that are worth mentioning. The paisanos are talking about Cornelia, who is a bit wild, but always has masses sung for her father - who appears to have been even wilder. Pablo questions whether these masses are effective.

“That soul will need plenty of masses. But do you think a mass has virtue when the money for that mass comes out of men’s pockets while they sleep in wine at Cornelia’s house?”

“A mass is a mass,” said Pilon. “Where you get two-bits is of no interest to the man who sells you a glass of wine. And where a mass comes from is of no interest to God. He just likes them, the same as you like wine.”

I’m not convinced Pilon is right about the second part, although he certainly is about the first. And I think he is right that the purveyors of the Religious-Industrial Complex don’t give a rat’s rear end about where they get their political power or money from as well. As the last election has proven.

Steinbeck was not a fan of religion. (And honestly, although I remain a committed Christian - a follower of Christ - I am not either these days. Here in America, it has become a strong force for evil, sad to say.) Here is another perceptive and sharp-edged barb.

It must be admitted with sadness that Pilon had neither the stupidity, the self-righteousness, nor the greediness for reward ever to become a saint.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire many of the saints. The writers of the New Testament. Saint Francis of Assisi, many of the women. But particularly for our modern “saints,” it does seem to require greed, self-righteousness, and willful ignorance. I’m not as cynical as Steinbeck, but damn it’s hard not to be right now. (I’m thinking of how everyone I know who defends breaking up immigrant families and criminalizing those who come here fleeing violence and poverty - and there are more than I expected - claims the name of Christ. Mostly Evangelicals, but a Catholic here and there too. And every last one of them white... it’s been a hard month.)

I should also mention the hilarious treasure hunting chapter. Like the hunt for the grail, it ends with disappointment, but in a humorous way.

Anyway, I still think this isn’t Steinbeck’s best book, but it is still a worthy read. I admire his idea: King Arthur set among the marginalized. Already, he shows a knack for characterization and vignette which would truly flower in his later works.

1 comment:

  1. In my second year of college (1972 or thereabouts) I took a class in what was then 20th century literature. We read Tortilla Flats, Cannery Row and East of Eden. Of the three, I liked Cannery Row the best. I guess I'll have to mosey over to the library and check them out and reread them now with the wisdom of an adult.