Friday, December 2, 2011


Here's the sad truth: I majored in English in college many years ago, and was once fairly literate in the history of fiction - the classics, the great works, and all that. Then in the 90s I made the switch to reading only non-fiction books, not out of any real spite for fiction, but just out of a desire to learn more about things that really happened, were happening or that might come to be. I thought about the fact that I just powered through John Steinbeck's 1935 novel "TORTILLA FLAT" last week, and I counted back how many works of fiction I'd read since the dawn of the 21st century. Ouch. I came up with a mere two before this one: Paul Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky" and, uh, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo". So let's just say I'm working to get back to that younger version of myself, the guy who could escape into a world entirely of the author's making. I sort of miss that. After finally reading only my second Steinbeck (I know!!), I'm also ready to embark on a Steinbeck discovery program to make amends for all the years I frittered away not reading his oeuvre.

Simply put, "TORTILLA FLAT" is a magnificent piece of comedy and literature, in that order, whether you're reading it in high school or in your middle age dotage as I did. It concerns the paisanos - men of Mexican heritage - that lived in the Tortilla Flat section of Monterey, CA in the 1930s. More specifically, it centers on a cluster of friends who spend their days and evenings drinking wine, scheming new ways to steal things so as to drink more wine, and generally not working but still finding new avenues for their "talents" in other areas, such as they are. Danny and his friends are all men imbued with a deep, shame-ridden sense of Catholicism that they invoke on multiple occassions when it serves their nefarious interest in doing so. It's quite obvious, and quite funny, how little respect Steinbeck had for the church. He makes it a place of hypocrisy and fear (surprise!), while never tarring any individual in the book too badly. In fact, everyone in the book, for all their many faults, comes off as quite lovable and good-hearted.

This makes for a jolly book. The cover drawing on my paperback, as above, captures the spirit of the book as good as anything does. Danny, Pilon, Jesus Maria, The Pirate and the rest of their gang are good-natured drunks who steal chickens from people's yards so they can have something to eat, and yet their Catholic guilt constantly eggs them on to even more bad deeds so they can repay earlier problems they've caused. They are in and out of jail, and usually are found dreaming up some spectacularly stupid plan that will allow them to drink more than they already are. Steinbeck paints a picture of Monterey as a close-knit, everyone-knows-everyone sort of place, and it's little wonder he's so beloved down there. I promised myself after reading this that I'll allow myself a trip to the Steinbeck museum in Salinas after I've read at least three more of his major works beyond this one.

"Tortilla Flat" is a fairly short novel, and was apparently the one that put him on the map in 1935 after several tries with novels that didn't sell. It's funny and simple and something that I heartily recommend to anyone.