Tortilla Flat is set in the neighborhood by that name in post-WWI Monterey, California, and involves a group of paisano friends. Perhaps I am just being lazy, but I do think that Steinbeck himself can tell you best what the book undertakes. I give you the first paragraph of his Preface:
This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.
And that is, very much, what the book is about.
Danny inherits two houses from his grumpy grandfather upon returning from the war. He is astonished by his good fortune and newfound riches, but also dismayed at the great responsibility of owning property. He takes in friends, one by one by one, and they become a strange, disordered household. It is true that critical readings of this book treat it as an interpretation of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table; but I think it’s worth pointing out that these men are a rather dirty, devious, and intermittently disloyal version thereof. They steal from each other on occasion; and their main purpose in life is to obtain wine, and drink it. Not necessarily a bad thing. Steinbeck writes as impressively as ever about the wine:
Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two paisanos. Spiritually the jugs maybe graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point anything can happen.
You might also call it a picaresque, being full of minor adventures that often run to humor and pathos by turns.
My audio version is narrated by John McDonough, and I like his interpretation very much. The Spanish-in-translation word order and sentence structure gives an accurate paisano feel, and McDonough reflects that in the lilt and rhythm of his speech. (Note that I did not say he puts on an accent.) I enjoyed hearing this story told. I did not always like the players, but that’s not a requirement for liking a book.
I won’t rate this one above the best of the Steinbeck I have read, Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. But it is recognizably Steinbeck, and worth the time.
Rating: 7 jugs of wine, naturally.
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