Sunday, 10 March 2019

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
Published in America by Pascal Covici in 1935.

One of my Classics Club reads and my 11th 2019 Mount TBR Challenge read

How I got this book:
Bought the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Steinbeck's first major critical and commercial success, TORTILLA FLAT is also his funniest novel. Danny is a paisano, descended from the original Spanish settlers who arrived in Monterey, California, centuries before. He values friendship abovemoney and possessions, so that when he suddently inherits two houses, Danny is quick to offer shelter to his fellow gentlemen of the road. Their love of freedom and scorn for material things draw them into daring and often hilarious adventures. Until Danny, tiring of his new reponsibilities, suddenly disappears...

I don't often read John Steinbeck but always love his books when I do. I think Cannery Row is still my favourite so far, but there's still lots of his books I haven't read. I bought Tortilla Flat straight after finishing La Perle with the intention of making a slightly bigger dent in the Steinbeck back catalogue this year. Tortilla Flat predates Cannery Row by about a decade and, without being too sniffy I hope, this does show. The novels are geographically very close to each other and their central characters share strong resemblances too. It feels almost as though Cannery Riw is a matured Tortilla Flat. Basically, a group of deadbeats and drunks are scraping by, sometimes by legal means and sometimes in a more shady fashion. I loved the relationship dynamics between the group of friends. They share a convoluted code of ethics where crimes such as theft can be considered beneficial or heinous, usually depending more on the perpetrator's professed motivation than anything else.

Steinbeck presents Danny and his friends as essentially harmless and almost as overage children whose actions rarely have any real consequences. While I could enjoy this as a humorous part of the novel, their attitudes do rather date Tortilla Flat now. Women characters are only caricatures and I was uncomfortable at the repeated use of 'Jew' as an insult. It's a difficult question for me to address. While I wouldn't want to stop reading vintage and classic novels, I am not sure how strongly to criticise problematic attitudes or whether to penalise them through my star ratings.

Also, Tortilla Flat was written over eighty years ago and probably does reflect aspects of Paisano life at the time as accurately as Steinbeck could see it from his outsider's viewpoint. He writes amusing stories of the men's antics as entertainment for readers however, though the seriousness of their poverty is always very apparent. As a primarily illiterate and uneducated community, there are unlikely to have been any #ownvoices memoirs or novels of this period to counter this mythic presentation of the happy hobo trope. (Do Comment if you know of any!) So now Steinbeck's famous novel could stand as a primary record of such people and I am not convinced that Tortilla Flat does them justice.

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  1. That's an interesting storyline. Not my type of read but interseting nonetheless.

  2. This one I have not read...I should fix that. Delightful review!

  3. I have only read Of Mice and Men by him but I did love it and want to work my way through his titles eventually like you are doing. I am glad to know you could enjoy this one as well.

    1. I read Of Mice And Men at school and loved the book. That was so long ago I should revisit it!