101 of 104 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2002
Tortilla Flat was an actual place in Carmel that John Steinbeck placed in Monterey. He took some stories about the paisanos (a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and Caucasian bloods) that lived in this marginal place consisting of shacks and, using the style of the Arthurian legends, spun these tales about Danny and his friends. They are meant to be humorous and serious at times, and the characters are larger than life. Certainly, no one could live as Danny, Pilon, Jesus Marie, Big Joe Portagee and the Pirate, consuming wine by the gallon, eating whatever they can steal and taking up and whoring with any woman they want, but this is hardly the point. The tales have an epic proportion to them like Malory's knights of yore but from the vantagepoint of the New World. This makes Tortilla Flat an entertaining and cleverly written book.
Danny is the central character of the book and the anchor that holds his group of friends together. They may be vagabonds but they have a moral code. An example: the Pirate lives with five dogs in a chicken coop. He takes some kindling wood into town each day and receives a quarter for it. He does not spend the money but hoards it. The paisanos estimate it to be $100 and think of stealing it, but are unable to follow the Pirate to where he has hidden the money. To get around this problem they invite the Pirate to live with him and try to discover the whereabouts of the money by suggesting it could be stolen quite easily. The Pirate eventually brings the money to the paisanos and discloses why he is saving it: the money is to fulfill a promise made to St. Francis to present a golden candlestick to a church in the saints honor. Why? Because the saint cured an illness one of his dogs had. Once the paisanos know the money is for a religious purpose they guard it diligently. The chapter in Tortilla Flat when the Pirate's vow is fulfilled is one of the most beautiful and memorable in the book.
This is a beautifully written book filled with humor and pathos. Mr. Steinbeck was criticized in writing this book by some readers who could not enter into the spirit of the book thinking he was glorifying the free and easy lives of Danny and company. This was not his intention; he was only telling stories inspired by the free spirits of the paisanos. Unfortunately for us, this criticism was bitter and Mr. Steinbeck never undertook such a book again. It is our loss that he could not give us another Tortilla Flat.
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2001
I highly recommended this short novel but I would not do so for everyone. First of all, you must appreciate the novel being written in 1935 and the language spoken by the characters reflect that time period, rightly so. It only takes a short while to adapt and I found the story moving along at a nice pace as the personalities began to assume colorful portrayals.
Steinbeck presents a group of men, or paisanos living in Monterey, California after the first World War. These are poor men, not especially motivated to work for a living and have a thirsty, never ending longing for wine. They circle around Danny, the fortunate one in the group, who inherited 2 small houses from his grandfather. Having no steady job, it makes sense to him to "rent" to his buddies. His buddies don't have jobs or revenue, either, so the compensation that takes place is in the form of companionship and the collective sharing of all foods begged from the back doors of groceries and restaurants. The hawking of whatever goods they come upon that can be bartered for the prized gallon of wine serves to be their highest priority. While seemingly desperate and pathetic, these men go to no end to rationalize their predicaments, twist truths and events to be self-serving and ultimately rewarding their endeavors by securing enough wine to satisfy them all. This can be quite a challenge, and the lengths they go to to fulfill their thirsty desires are hilarious. That the reader finds love and goodness in these fellows is reflected by the skill of John Steinbeck's writing.
The book is a quick read and it was not long before I became fond and wiped away a few tears of sorrow and joy for each of them and the circumstances these men find themselves. The practise of their Catholic religion is random; they use it when they need it, commit small crimes in the name of it and dismiss the many restrictive "Thou shall not's" when seized in the throes of passion or inebriation. A greater sense of loyalty knits these men to each other. While women acquaintances come and go, the paisanos rely on each other and faithfully commit to one another. In spite of the inevitable drunken fights and arguments, the following morning beckons another day. All the sins of the previous day are (literally) forgotten and forgiven. In the dawn of the new day anything is possible, and the adventures these men get themselves into is pure comic entertainment.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2004
This is a fable set in John Steinbeck's beloved Northern California. What it's all about are friendships and the dynamics of interpersonal dealings between immortal characters. Immortal in that every generation has their Pilons and Dannys, and of having things that you can hold in your own hand versus things that cannot ultimately be bought or sold. The appeal is due in part to the similarities in our own lives and in the lives of others. In every Steinbeck novel is a little gift of insight. This has many.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2005
". . . and the tides rise and fall as a great clepsydra."
The protagonists of TORTILLA FLAT are paisanos, and the word is descriptive. Evolving through Spanish from an Old French term meaning "peasant," the word connotes comrades or fellow countrymen. Indeed, Danny, Pilon, Big Joe Portagee, the Pirate, Jesus Maria, and the other personalities that one meets in this novel certainly qualify as comrades. Still, we must use the term advisedly, for their comradeship is not that of heroes, nor that of stolid laborers, nor even that of great criminal minds. No, it is the comradeship of simplicity, poverty, ignorance, despair, and, on occasion, of simple pleasure. It is the comradeship of survival through the inexorable passage of time.
The paisanos of TORTILLA FLAT survive without hope, without ambition, and without families, at least in the comfortable, middle-class definition of those terms. Yet, from their unquestioning viewpoints, they have all of these and more. Sometimes they hope for a little money to come their way, for without money one cannot buy wine and the joy that it brings. Their ambition may be to impress "Sweets" Ramirez to enjoy her favors for a night. And for a family, they have the all of the paisanos in Tortilla Flat above Monterey. In this light, the novel is both tragic and comic, tragic in that its souls are always questing, always in need of another bottle of wine or of a suit of clothes or of a bit of rent money or of a woman's company for an hour or so or of buried treasure in a haunted forest; comic in that a bottle of wine will bring joy, a two-bit piece (a quarter) constitutes wealth, a vacuum cleaner is a treasure in a house with no electricity. Here, of course, "comic" does not necessarily imply mirthfulness, though that frequently results, but rather the opposite of tragedy, success in life and fulfillment of desire, transient though success and fulfillment may be.
The theme of gain and loss repeats constantly: Gain comes with a new bottle of wine, loss with destruction of the annual bean crop. Gain comes with stealing a picnic basket with deviled eggs, loss when treasure in the forest turns out to be a geodetic survey marker. Gain comes when Torrelli buys Danny's house for $25, loss when the bill of sale is burned in the stove. Interwoven with this theme are the innumerable ironies of life: the air tight stove whose cracks emit light, the pride felt by owning a vacuum cleaner in a house with no power, a vacuum cleaner that, as one learns later, has no motor, making it the perfect status symbol for such a house, the relief that Danny feels when his second house burns, relieving him of some of the pressures of the responsibilities of a property owner, the health enjoyed by children who live on nothing but tortillas and beans. And is this not what life is all about--gains and losses, successes and failures, joys and sorrows, and the many ironies that preclude a too-logical existence?
Until very nearly the end, I felt that TORTILLA FLAT was actually up-beat, the paisanos always overcoming the adversities that life threw their way, always finding some means of obtaining that joy-filled gallon of wine, always successfully stealing the chicken that they needed for a celebratory feast, always finding a way to repay Danny for his hospitality, but then came the greatest irony of all. The responsibility that weighs on Danny as the focal point of his companions, as the provider of their shelter, as the relative anchor for the others is too great for his poor, simple soul that desires nothing more than the freedom of total irresponsibility. He struggles with this demon and loses. With his loss, the comradeship of the paisanos crumbles. Is this the moral of the story, that success brings responsibility, and that responsibility brings destruction of the individual? But the paisanos will continue, not as a group of comrades but as the individuals they were before. Perhaps their temporary coalescing into a comradeship was but the rise of the tide, which must, as a natural consequence, also fall. Perhaps the entire story is nothing more than a moment in the perpetual flow of time as measured by some "great clepsydra." Is this tragic or is it reassuring that such flow is immutable, is as timeless as the paisanos?
In discussing TORTILLA FLAT, it is customary to describe Danny as the corollary of King Arthur and the paisanos around him as the counterparts of the Knights of the Round Table. There are equivalences, of course, but I prefer to view the novel as an observation on today's world, the transience of men as contrasted with the tides, and perhaps the relativity of such concepts as "success," "happiness," "confidence," and "joy." Our paisanos enjoy all of these rewards--in terms of their own value system--despite the inevitable reversals of fortune that all men experience. Yes, I believe that I do find this book uplifting and actually positive in its theme, the poverty and ignorance of its characters notwithstanding. It certainly arouses many conflicting thoughts and questions in the reader, a result that places it squarely on one's "must read" list.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2005
John Steinbeck is the ultimate storyteller. In fact, his writing was so excellent that he was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1962. Steinbeck is from Salinas, California, which is where Tortilla Flat is set. Steinbeck is probably best known for his novels The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden, as well as the novella, Of Mice and Men. However, Tortilla Flat was actually Steinbeck's first well-received novel, and it is worthy of that honor. Tortilla Flat was written in 1935 when Steinbeck was only 33 years old.
Steinbeck's writing is frank, clear, and simple; but at the same time he weaves intricate and remarkable stories that are complete with emotion and complex characters. Tortilla Flat is no exception. Tortilla Flat reads much like the other John Steinbeck books I have read, The Pearl and Of Mice and Men. It is an emotional story of disadvantaged, impoverished, and frequently unemployed characters making their way and finding satisfaction in the world.
Danny is a paisano. "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 nearly white. His color, like that of a well-browned meerschaum pipe, he ascribes to sunburn." Tortilla Flat is essentially Danny's story. His story, when you are first introduced to him, mainly consists of waking up, getting drunk nightly off copious amounts of wine, and falling back to sleep. All events in between are usually geared towards somehow obtaining the money for the bottles of wine.
We meet Danny as he is returning from war. He delightfully discovers that his grandfather has left him two houses in Monterey's Tortilla Flat. For a man who has no job, no money, and is accustomed to sleeping under whatever makeshift shelter he could find, two houses are a huge blessing. Somewhere along the way he manages to get down to one house (which is an entertaining story in itself!). His remaining house becomes a sort of beacon to fellow down-and-out paisanos. The camaraderie and relationships that develop between the characters managed to touch my heart as well as make me chuckle. You read about their adventures, their successes, and their tragedies. Tortilla Flat is a novel about friendship, commitment, love, poverty, and alcohol. It is the story of how shiftless individuals came together under Danny's roof and created something better than any of them alone, and it is the story of how they all departed. "They turned and walked slowly away, and no two walked together".
Tortilla Flat was made into a fairly successful movie in 1942. However, I'd be skeptical that the movie would do justice to Steinbeck's remarkable writing.
Tortilla Flat is not an especially difficult read. The vocabulary and length are not daunting in the least. The book is a mere 174 pages, and the chapters are only about ten pages each. The book is never tedious, and never fails to entertain. The themes, ideas, and morals are not extremely evident. However, if you choose to sit and think about the book beyond the story, then I feel that it is much more fulfilling, and a bit more challenging. I'd recommend Tortilla Flat to anyone who is a fan of Steinbeck, and if not, then Tortilla Flat is a great place to start. It is a fabulous read for anyone interested in society's shortcomings, people's happiness, and friendships; hopefully that's all of you out there. You'll find Tortilla Flat in any self-respecting bookstore, and just in case you can't it's available at amazon.com. Happy reading!
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 1996
I'm a 12-year old kid and I read this book and loved it. It
has depth and actual plot unlike video-games and most cartoons.
It is a wonderful entertaining novel about small adventures that
Danny and his group of friends have. They all live in Danny's
house and are a lot like Robin Hood and his gang that steal from
the rich and give to the poor. When I think about these people
I don't think of dirty poor people, but of noble people. In each
chapter they gain something in some strange way which makes the
story funny in places. They don't have a goal but ride life the way
it comes.You end up swimming in the ocean of this story and it doesn't sting your eyes.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2001
Danny and his paisano friends are Mexican-Americans living in Monterey, California. Danny inherits two houses from his grandfather and invites several of these friends to rent a room in one and then, later, in the other house. Danny being a very generous and kind person makes no effort to collect rent from his friends. Before long, several more friends are taken in. But one does not think of these men as mere freeloaders. Each one is well aware of Danny's generousity, and tries to repay Danny either in his own way or with the assistance of the other paisanos.
This warmly appealing, colorful, and beautifully told novel recounts a number of the adventures of these men. Whether they are attempting to help a destitute woman with children suffering from malnourishment, or giving encouraging words to a young soldier whose wife abandoned him and their an infant son for a high-ranking officer, or merely drinking wine or scuffling with their fellow paisanos or with others, it is clear that these men truly love and look out for one another. They even form an ad hoc council to mete out severe punishment to one of their friends who is discovered stealing from them.
My only reservation about the book is that Steinbeck tends to patronize the paisanos. He presents them as drunkards and slackers, who only work when they must raise some money for a special purpose. However, realizing that the novel was set in the 1930's when such stereotyping of Mexicans (and all minorities for that matter) was quite common, I was able to enjoy this wonderful book despite these minor shortcomings.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
The lyrics of an old Leonard Cohen song, "A Bird on a Wire," kept rolling around in my brain as I read this: "...Like a bird on a wire, like some drunk in a midnight choir, I've tried, in my way, to be free..." And it seems that I've read Steinbeck's books "out of order," this one being a spiritual and thematic antecedent to Cannery Row: (Centennial Edition), also celebrated in song, by none other than Bob Dylan, in "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,": "...with your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row..."
This novel is set during the Great Depression, in Monterrey, California. "Tortilla Flats" is a sort of `Bidonville', as the French say, outside the city proper, without electricity, whose inhabitants are paesanos, of mixed race, and it generally means they are not picky about their pedigree, or, at times, their couplings. If at all, most of the inhabitants are only marginally employed, "scoring" a quarter here, a stale loaf of bread there. They are at the very edge of economic life, with no reserves. One of their number, Danny, has "drawn to an inside straight," as it were: his grandfather died, and left him not one, but two houses, which grants almost "gentry status" in the Flats. But Danny is not "upwardly mobile." He stays true to his ways, lifestyle and his former friends who all eventually come to live with him: Pilon, Big Joe, Pablo, Jesus Maria, and Pirate. Their need for the next "fix," in those gentler times, taking the form of a gallon jug of wine, is the glue that binds them together (and occasionally separates them).
Steinbeck's prose is incisive. He renders fresh portraits of the natural world of the California coast, but his true strength is in these telling and non-judgmental portraits of America's "lumpenproletariat." They have their own society, with their own sense of honor, their actions based on good intentions and wild rationalizations. It is mainly a male society, with the women on the margins playing their all too predictable role. Each chapter is a separate vignette, told often with understated wry humor, which is one piece in that larger mosaic that conveys the totality of their lives. There is the local jail, for sure, because these are the proverbial 10% who consume 90% of the time of the police. There is the Church, marginal, but nominally revered by all, which plays a dominant role in Pirate's life, and yes, let's hear it for St. Francis of Assisi, the lover of Pirate's dogs. And where else could a vacuum cleaner, without a motor, be a status symbol?
What seems to divide me for some other reviewers is Steinbeck's authentic depiction of their lives. Some say this could not possibly be. No, it is, at least as I remember it through the hazy fog of time. In my youth, ah..., I lived with one or more of Danny's gang before our lives went their "bifurcated" ways. Steinbeck caught perfectly that constant need to cage the next drink, all so gentile, that look in their eyes that said: "I know it is a lie, you know it is a lie, you'll never be repaid, but how about that quarter anyhow." Steinbeck describes the life (and obvious loves, or rather couplings) of Teresina Cortez, mother of 8 at 30, who managed to feed her brood of "creepers and crawlers," as the author describes them, by gleaning. With care, after a harvest, and off of trucks, they could accumulate 400 pounds of beans, sufficient for a year, IF the harvest does not fail. Impossible? I'd highly recommend Agnes Varda's excellent movie The Gleaners and I.
"They" are still out there, right here in Albuquerque, on the old Route 66, still trying to get to California (or get back.) If that aforementioned bifurcation was suddenly conjoined, and despite what must have been a very unhealthy "lifestyle" over the past 40 years, I met one of those housemates, still scrounging for just one more buck, Steinbeck's novel should provide the empathy to deal with the situation. Absolutely 5-stars.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
John Steinbeck knows about people and he knows how to tell a story. Much like with his other works, this is evident in "Tortilla Flat". While the book really does not have a dominant plot, the story reflects some interesting people with their quirks in a realistic situation.
Returning from a tour of duty, Danny finds that he has inherited some property which includes two houses. While Danny lives in one house, he collects friends like bottles of cheap wine to live in the other house. But when the second house burns, his friends are forced to move in with him. The house get even more crowded as more friends join the lackadasical lifestyle of taking in sunsets and sipping wine. With each new friends comes a new idiosyncracy that is added to the dynamic of friends. Then the day came when Danny seemed to snap for no particular reason. With Danny's demise, the friends go their separate ways.
John Steinbeck captures the human spirit with the colorful backdrop of early 20th century California in many of his works. With "Tortilla Flat", Steinbeck proves that he does not really need a strong plot to write an entertaining book.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
It took me longer than I expected to finish reading this book. Its very slow paced in its narration and I went into it know it was some sort of ananlogy for Camelot--so I kept expecting more obvious links to the British legends. But it is not Camelot, though as I read further I did finally see what people were refering to. Danny's house is like a round table that attracts all sorts--deep down they have good hearts (except maybe Big Joe Portagee...) and good deeds are done by them. Though often with much mayhem beforehand.
The set up is very similar to "Cannery Row" in how Steinbeck lets the story unfold. There is one man with the power--in this case Torellei with his gallons of cheap wine that the group of guys is always drinking. There is a house that they share. And the chapters are mostly self contained short stories but also follow a plot arc of the whole book.
As I read further I enjoyed the book more, it took me about half way through to really appreciate what Steinbeck was doing. The entrance of the character, The Pirate, was possibly what really drew me in. He is fantastic! A man who is a bit slow of mind but with a sold gold heart, who also has five very loyal canine friends. I'd reccomend people read this book just for the chance to meet this character.
Pilon is also another brilliant character, he is wiley and smart and often selfish until an opportunity for the greater good comes along.
Not my favorite Steinbeck novel, but certainly was worth reading.