Book Review: Tortilla Flat

I’m trying to work my way through all of John Steinbeck’s stuff, and Tortilla Flat is different from what I’ve read so far in a few ways. It’s shorter, for one, but more incongruently it’s genuinely funny. Not something I’ve grown to expect from Steinbeck.

Tortilla Flat tells the tale of a group of “paisanos” in the eponymous California town. Basically, they’re a bunch of bums who blow all their (often ill-gotten) money on wine, but they’re mostly harmless and Steinbeck tells their tale with great sympathy and tongue-in-cheek humor. The group live in Danny’s House, which is one of the two houses that one of their group inherits from a relatively wealthy family member. Most of the little chapters in the book describe little stories and vignettes about how the paisanos spend their days, and they’re mostly about how they steal, drink, help each other out, and gossip about the other people in Tortilla Flat.

What struck me most about the novel is how amazingly adept the men of Danny’s House are at contorting any given situation and set of morals so that getting drunk and lying around is the best –indeed often the ONLY– course of action possible. If they owe someone money, it would be a terrible disservice to pay him back and strain their friendship when they could buy a gallon of wine and get drunk together in the shade. This kind of self-serving selflessness is irony at its best, and it’s amazing (and amusing) to watch them go at it.

In fact, the book is mildly funny throughout, with all kinds of jokes and digs at the paisanos’s expense. My favorite bit was when Danny buys a vacuum cleaner for a lady friend. The fact that she doesn’t have any electricity in her house doesn’t keep her from coveting the device and showing it off to visitors by pushing it around her house while making sound effects with her mouth, but when Danny’s friend Pilon steals the vacuum cleaner and trades it for wine (because it’s the right thing to do for his friend Danny’s benefit, he reasons), the buyer is outraged to find out that the contraption didn’t even have a motor in it. That’s irony, folks.

It’s also a piercing insight on Steinbeck’s part as to what makes people happy, and how the paisanos are blessed in a way by their poverty, innocence, and simple mindedness. These guys are happy, and as far as they can see, noble in the extreme. They lack for everything, so in a way they lack for nothing except maybe another gallon of wine. In a way, this is a stark coutner-point to some of Steinbeck’s other novels like The Grapes of Wrath or The Pearl or The Old Man and the Sea, in which the protagonists are ensnared by hopes of prosperity and thus have their happiness dashed to pieces by reality. It’s good stuff.

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