Steinbeck, John. 1935. Tortilla Flat. 207 pages.
From the 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 their endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated." (1)
From the first chapter, "When Danny came home from the army he learned that he was an heir and an owner of property. The viejo, that is the grandfather, had died, leaving Danny the two small houses on Tortilla Flat." (5)
I loved this book. I did. Here's why: simple, straightforward, but oh-so-charming storytelling. No pretenses. What you see, is what you get. Danny. Pilon. Big Joe Portagee. Pablo Sanchez. Jesus Maria Corcoran. Pirate and his dogs. Some might argue that none of these are great characters. You might even make the (valid) point that each one is a 'failure' of sorts--since between them they're barely surviving by the world's standards. They live to drink and drink to live. But are they happy? Yes! These are happy-go-lucky guys that know what they want out of life. Wine and women--but no commitments or responsibilities.
The story is essentially this: a young man--a soldier--returns from World War I to learn that he has inherited two houses. After some time in jail, he remembers his new-found wealth and decides to take up residence in one of the houses. But right from the start, Danny is a magnet for like-minded men who love this free and easy lifestyle. First Pilon. Then Pablo. Then the others. These men take up with him because essentially there's just one rule: the bed is off limits. Danny's bed is Danny's bed. The only other rule is share and share alike. IF and when you find yourself in the possession of a gallon or jug of wine (or any other alcoholic beverage) you have to share with everyone living there. Likewise, food is to be shared. No rent is required.
The storytelling. It is so good. So humorous. So accessible. There's a rightness about it. It would be hard to pick a favorite chapter, but I'll narrow it down to two.
I loved "How Danny Was Ensnared By A Vacuum-Cleaner and How Danny's Friends Rescued Him." It was just so funny. Essentially, the story goes something like this. Danny is seduced by a local woman, Dolores Engracia Ramirez ("Sweets" Ramirez). When Danny happens across some money--a rare event as you'll see if you pick this one up--he decides to buy a present for his girl, who in an equally rare state-of-mind has decided to be a one-man woman...temporarily at least. What does he buy her? A vacuum cleaner! The problem? No one in Tortilla Flat has electricity! Does this make the present any less appreciated? No! Sweets prides herself on being the only one with this fancy sweeping tool. And she never ceases to bring it up in conversation. She's seen rolling it around her house and making humming-motor noises. Anyway, hysterical as that is--and I suppose you'll have to trust me on that--his friends aren't happy with Danny's infatuation. So they decide to steal the vacuum and trade it for a gallon or two of wine. So they return home and tell Danny...
The friends received him in silence when he entered Danny's house. He set one jug on the table and the other on the floor.
"I have brought you a present to take to the lady," he told Danny. "And here is a little wine for us."
They gathered happily, for their thirst was a raging fire. When the first gallon was far gone, Pilon held his glass to the candlelight and looked through it. "Things that happen are of no importance," he said. "But from everything that happens, there is a lesson to be learned. By this we learn that a present, especially to a lady, should have no quality that will require a further present. Also we learn that it is sinful to give presents of too great value, for they excite greed."
The first gallon was gone. The friends looked at Danny to see how he felt about it. He had been very quiet, but now he saw that his friends were waiting on him.... (109)
I'll leave you hanging as to what happens next. My second favorite adventure is "How Danny's Friends Threw Themselves To The Aid of a Distressed Lady."
I loved these characters. They're all distinct and wonderfully flawed. Though these men are very simple and seemingly simple-minded, there is a wisdom at times in their words.
Pilon complained, "It is not a good story. There are too many meanings and too many lessons in it. Some of those lessons are opposite. There is not a story to take into your head. It proves nothing."
"I like it," said Pablo. "I like it because it hasn't any meaning you can see, and still it does seem to mean something, I can't tell what." (168)
I recommend this one to folks wanting to read a classic...but who feel somewhat intimidated and bored by more traditional 'classics.' It was just a joy to keep reading.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
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