John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat: Book Review

I finished reading John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat this weekend. This is one of Steinbeck’s earlier novels, published in 1935. It’s a fairly short read, and I read the novel from the Library of America edition.

The novel is split into seventeen chapters, each with a descriptive title. For example, the first chapter is titled “How Danny, home from the wars, found himself an heir, and how he swore to protect the helpless.” The story begins with us finding out about Danny, who used to work as a mule driver during World War I. After he gets back to California, he finds out that he has inherited two houses from his deceased grandfather. The first line of Tortilla Flat:

When Danny came home from the army he learned that he was an heir and owner of property.

In what is a recurring theme in the novel, Danny gets drunk and is thrown in jail. While in jail, he shares a drink with his jailer, and not long after, manages to escape. Danny talks to his friend named Pilon into sharing his brandy and one of his houses (for a fifteen dollar rent).  Pilon soon talks to his friend named Pablo, who also is invited to live in the house, but Pilon mentions to Pablo that a fifteen dollar rent will be due. The story evolves into five friends living in the house: Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria Corcoran, Big Joe Portagee, and The Pirate (described as a man whose mind did not grow up with his body, he is a little bit slow and gets easily taken advantage of throughout the novel).

The setting of the novel is Tortilla Flat, a town located above Monterey, California. The five main characters, also known as paisanos, who live in Danny’s house are drunkards, thieves, and vagabonds. They are scheming and conniving, often tricking one another to get a pint of wine to satisfy their cravings. Tortilla Flat revolves around the numerous adventures of these paisanos, including a quest to find treasure on St. Andrew’s Eve by Pilon and Big Joe (they dig at night, only to find a signpost for a geological survey). There are also descriptions of affairs with women. But, I think, the core of this story revolves around heart: the paisanos are generous, and near the end of the novel, when Danny gets afflicted with sadness (he doesn’t leave the porch of his house for a month), his friends throw him the biggest party held in Tortilla Flat. Unfortunately, the night of the party ends in tragedy. The ending of the novel is perhaps not surprising, given the way novel began (no spoilers from me)…

Some interesting quotes from the novel:

An arrival the afternoon:

The afternoon came down as imperceptibly as age comes to a happy man. A little gold entered into the sunlight. The bay became bluer and dimpled with shore-wind ripples. Those lonely fishermen who believe that the fish bite at high tide left their rocks, and their places were taken by others, who were convinced that the fish bit at low tide.

On Jesus Maria Corcoran:

Jesus Maria Corcoran was a pathway for the humanities. Suffering he tried to relieve; sorrow he tried to assuage; happiness he shared.

Is it possible to judge the depth of sleep?

If it were possible to judge depth of sleep, it could be said with justice that Pablo, whose culpable action was responsible for the fire, slept even more soundly than his two friends. But since there is no gauge, it can only be said that he slept very soundly.

Four characters described:

Their campaign had called into play and taxed to the limit the pitiless logic of Pilon, the artistic ingenuousness of Pablo and the gentleness and humanity of Jesus Maria Corcoran. Big Joe had contributed nothing.

A lesson about gifts:

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 further present. Also we learn that it is sinful to give presents of too great value, for they may excite greed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is when the narration shifted from third person to first person, occurring late in the novel:

In the year of which I speak, the beans were piled and the candle had been burned.

On time near the sea:

Time is more complex near the sea than in any other place, for in addition to the circling of the sun and the turning of the seasons, the waves beat out the passage of time on the rocks and the tides rise and fall as a great clepsydra.

A mention of sack of potatoes:

They went home, and to their horror, they found that the new sack of potatoes that Pilon had found only that morning was gone.

The party thrown for Danny by his friends was of epic proportions:

Some time a historian may write a cold, dry, fungus-like history of The Party. He may refer to the moment when Danny defied and attacked the whole party, men, women and children, with a table leg…

Another instance of the narrator speaking to the reader, this time to persuade an issue of privacy (you have to read the novel to find out the circumstances):

I shall not go into the bedroom with Father Roman, for Pilon and Pablo and Jesus Maria and Big Joe and Johnny Pom-pom and Tito Ralph and the Pirate and the dogs were there; and they were Danny’s family. The door was, and is, closed. For after all there is pride in men, and some things cannot decently be pried into.

On Nature’s dispositions:

It is not always that Nature arranges her effects with good taste. Truly, it rained before Waterloo; forty feet of snow fell in the path of the Donner Party. But Friday turned out a nice day…

The last sentence of the novel, both conclusive and sad:

And after a while they turned and walked slowly away, and no two walked together.

Final Thoughts

I thought Tortilla Flat was a very good novel, but it pales in comparison to Steinbeck’s greater novella, Of Mice and Men. If you haven’t read any of Steinbeck’s novels, I think Of Mice and Men should be the first one read, as it is the most accessible, and perhaps the most poignant of his shorter novels. I’ve also read The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, which is one of my favorite novels of all-time. Primarily, I read Tortilla Flat because I enjoyed Steinbeck’s other novels (outside of the novels I already mentioned, I’ve also read The Winter of Our Discontent, The Pearl, and Travels with Charlie), and I also enjoy reading the more obscure works of particular authors to get a greater understanding of how they wrote (especially interesting is development of Steinbeck’s writing style, from his early novels to his magnum opus, East of Eden). I will probably read one or two more of Steinbeck’s novels before the year’s end, since the Library of America edition of his novels from 1932-1937 is on my bookshelf.

If you’ve read Tortilla Flat before, what did you think of it? Do you agree that one should read Of Mice and Men first? Of Steinbeck’s other novels (The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown, In Dubious Battle, Cannery Row), which one do you recommend I read next?

3 thoughts on “John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat: Book Review

  1. Tortilla Flat’s a favorite. “Of Mice and Men” is obviously the classic, but Tortilla Flat had a great heart. I also liked the bit about the vacuum cleaner.

    Of the other Steinbeck short novels I’ve read, “The Moon is Down” was the best. It has a pretty interesting history, too.

    • Ah yes, the part about the vacuum cleaner was excellent (and provided some great comic relief).

      I’ll put The Moon is Down on my reading list. Are there any other Steinbeck novels/novellas which you plan on reading this year?

  2. I enjoyed the book, too. I like the quotes you’ve selected from the text, especially the bit on Jesus Maria Corcoran, one of my favorite characters in the novel. Cheers, Kevin

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