My favorite genre of books is mid-20th century novels from The Americas – works by Kerouac, Vonnegut, Lee, Steinbeck, Garcia Marquez, Hughes, Hemingway, among many others. So finding a “Classic from the 20th century” for the Reading Challenge was a cinch for me.
I chose Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck – a classic I hadn’t read until now. It was published in 1935. I borrowed it from the Capitol Hill Library.
Danny is a paisano, born and raised in Tortilla Flat, a district in the hills above Monterey, California.
What is a paisano? He is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and assorted Caucasian bloods. His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or two years. He speaks English with a paisano accent and Spanish with a paisano accent. When questioned concerning his race, he indignantly claims pure Spanish blood and rolls up his sleeve to show that the soft inside of his arm is pure white.
Danny comes home after serving in The Great War and learns that his viejo (his grandfather) had died and had left him two houses in Tortilla Flat. Danny decides to live in one house and rent the other one to his good friend and fellow paisano, Pilon. (Danny and Pilon enlisted in the army together – Pilon was stationed in Oregon, while Danny served in Texas.) Pilon offers to pay ten dollars per month rent. Danny asks for fifteen dollars per month. Pilon is offended, but agrees to fifteen dollars. Since neither one of them ever have any money, Pilon never pays the rent, and Danny never asks for it.
Pilon rents half of his house to Pablo, for fifteen dollars per month. If Pablo ever pays his rent to Pilon, Pilon will pay his rent to Danny. Pilon and Pablo rent half of their house to Jesus Maria, for fifteen dollars per month. Jesus Maria never pays the rent, and Pilon and Pablo never ask for it.
These friends live and speak as noble knights, with Danny as their king. They always seek out what is good, and live by a strict code of honor. For instance, when a stranger in front of a Monterey hotel hands Pilon a dollar to buy him (the stranger) four bottles of ginger ale, since the hotel is out, Pilon knows the right thing to do is use the dollar to buy some wine to share with his very good friend Danny.
And when God gives Jesus Maria a rowboat (in other words, Jesus Maria finds it on the shore), Jesus Maria sells it for seven dollars, and buys wine which he ends up sharing with Pilon and Pablo. Then they agree to give the leftover money to their very good friend Danny. They realize, however, that Danny would use the money to buy candy for his lady friend, and the candy would give them both toothaches. So they buy wine for Danny. Because they know that Danny drinks too much wine, Pilon, Pablo, and Jesus Maria drink the wine themselves, to protect their very good friend Danny.
When Pilon, Pablo, and Jesus Maria accidentally burn down the second house, Danny is saddened by his loss of status – he is no longer a man with a house to rent. He scolds his friends, because that is what is expected. Danny realizes, however, that he and his friends will now be closer, since they no longer owe him rent. They share wine and Danny’s house.
Big Joe, who enlisted with Danny and Pilon but spent the entirety of his military service in jail – “In civilian life one is punished for things one does; but army codes add a new principle to this – they punish a man for things he does not do.” – moves into the house.
There is a beautiful chapter in which the friends try to cheat the Pirate. I won’t go into detail, because the twist ending is so wonderful, but we finally get to see that the friends are not heartless thieves. They just have an unique code of conduct which comes from being society’s outcasts. The Pirate joins the household with his five dogs: Enrique, Pajarito, Rudolph, Señor Alec Thompson, and Fluff.
The chapter about Señora Teresina Cortez (known as Sweets) and her eight children, who are the most healthy babies the doctor had ever seen, as long as they eat nothing except beans, had a Magic Realism feel to me.
The book tells me that Tortilla Flat is based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I’ll take its word for it, since I’m only vaguely familiar with the legend.
I came to know Tortilla Flat and Monterey, and all the major and minor characters who live there. The details of the story are beautiful.
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.
Tortilla Flat is truly a classic. It is a book I could read over and over. I loved it. I felt sad and empty when the end came.
- A classic from the 20th century