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Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Tortilla Flat (original 1935; edition 1977)

by John Steinbeck

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4,009671,277 (3.81)1 / 260
Title:Tortilla Flat
Authors:John Steinbeck
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (1977), Edition: 2nd Printing, Mass Market Paperback, 224 pages
Collections:Your library

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Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (1935)


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English (54)  French (3)  Norwegian (2)  Finnish (2)  Spanish (2)  Dutch (1)  Italian (1)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (66)
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I don't recall when I first read Tortilla Flat but it must have been during my teen years. I didn't remember it as a favorite and never re-read it until now. There's a certain amount of charm to the cast of characters here, a ragtag group of layabout paisanos led by Danny who live in the hilly area above the town of Monterey. The manner of storytelling, with a mimicry of King Arthur's knights of the round table also adds a bit of charm. One can only listen to so many thees and thous however. My personal problem with the book is that I just can't identify with the drunken no-account lets steal the neighbors chickens, throw rocks through the windows on Alvarado street life, and the "charm" here wears thin. These guys would do anything but work. There are some interesting little vignettes and character sketches in here that pretty much save the story but I had my fill of drinking yourself into a stupor until the house burns down pretty early on.

In a sense I'm breaking my own rules on reading Steinbeck where I try not to put a late 20th/early 21st century sensibility on early 1930's life, but it is what it is. I'm pretty sure I felt this same way in the 60's or 70's when I first encountered this. These guys are serious alcoholics who drink gallons of wine and steal and slum their way for more wine or brandy.

Danny goes looney toons near the end and destroys his little paisano Camelot.

I listened to much of the story via an audiobook narrated by John McDonough. He does an excellent job reading this with a relaxed pace just about perfect for the story. It works well listened to in small chunks since it is an episodic story. I did a bit of spot reading/recapping as well as reading the last portion of the story from a physical paper book.

There are better Steinbeck stories than this one. ( )
  RBeffa | Jul 27, 2016 |
Above a town of Monterey on the California coast lies the shabby district of Tortilla Flat, inhabited by a loose gang of jobless locals of Mexican descent (who typically claim Spanish descent) whose riotous adventures are compared by Steinbeck to the exploits of the Knights of King Arthur.

Soft-hearted, unquestioningly loyal to one another, and in complete disregard of social conventions and expectations, the gutsy paisanos of Tortilla Flat cheerfully reside in a world of idyllic poverty. Steinbeck gives a description of a paisano, who according to Steinbeck [1] speaks English with a paisano accent, and Spanish with a paisano accent: "He is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods. His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred years or two.... He lives in that uphill district above the town of Monterey called Tortilla Flat, though it isn't flat at all." Most of the action which takes place in the novel is in the idyllic time of Steinbeck's own late teenage and young adult years, shortly after WW I (1919, approximately).

[edit] Plot summary
The following chapter titles from the work, along with short summaries, outline the adventures the dipsomaniacal group endure in order to procure red wine and friendship.

Chapter Summary

1 How Danny, home from the wars, found himself an heir, and how he swore to protect the helpless. — After working as a mule-driver during The Great War, Danny returns to find he has inherited two houses from his deceased grandfather. Danny gets drunk and goes to jail. He and the jailer drink wine at Torelli's. After escaping, Danny talks his friend, a clever man named Pilon into sharing his brandy and his houses.

2 How Pilon was lured by greed of position to forsake Danny's hospitality. — Danny fails to get the water turned on. Pilon kills a rooster, rents Danny's second house for money which it is understood he will never pay, and exchanges paper roses for a gallon of Señora Torelli's wine.

3 How the poison of possessions wrought with Pilon, and how evil temporarily triumphed in him. — Danny and Pilon share wine, two women, and a fight. Drunk a second time, Pilon sublets half his house to Pablo.

4 How Jesus Maria Corcoran, a good man, became an unwilling vehicle of evil. — Pablo, Pilon and Danny dicker over women and rent. Pablo and Pilon sublet their house to Jesus Maria for his $2. Potential girlfriends present are exchanged for wine.

5 How Saint Francis turned the tide and put a gentle punishment on Pilon and Pablo and Jesus Maria. — Pilon and Pablo enjoy two gallons of wine. Monterey prepares for night. Pablo enjoys dinner, firewood and love from Mrs. Torelli. Jesus Maria is beaten up by soldiers because he enjoys their whiskey and their girlfriend Arabella. Pablo's candle, dedicated to St. Francis, burns down the house, while Danny, who is with Mrs. Morales next door, pays no attention.

6 How three sinful men, through contrition, attained peace. How Danny's friends swore comradeship. — Pablo, Pilon and Jesus Maria sleep in the pine forest. They wake up smelling a picnic lunch which becomes theirs, and is shared with Danny, into whose remaining house they move.

7 How Danny's friends became a force for good. How they succored the poor pirate. — The pirate, a mentally handicapped man who is followed by 5 dogs, is invited by Pilon to stay at Danny's house. Pirate promised that if God would save his sick dog, he would buy a golden candle for St. Francis. The sickly dog recovered, though he was soon after run over by a truck. Pirate is bent on keeping his promise to buy a gold candle for St. Francis with 1000 quarters, or "two-bitses" ($250). The Pirate is the only paisano who works, and makes 25 cents a day selling kindling, but lives on food scraps given in charity, and saves the cash. He has hidden a great bag of quarters, known about by all. When he reveals his treasure to them, they are guilted into aiding him in his endeavor.

8 How Danny's friends sought mystic treasure on Saint Andrew's Even. How Pilon found it and later how a pair of serge pants changed ownership twice. — Joe Portagee returns from army jail, burns down a whorehouse, goes to jail again. He and Pilon seek treasure in the woods on St. Andrew's Eve (29 Nov), and see the faint beam from a spot which they mark. Next night, with wine Joe has gotten for a blanket he has stolen from Danny, they dig at the spot and uncover something labeled "UNITED STATES GEODECTIC SURVEY 1915 ELEVATION 600 FEET". Realizing it is a crime to take, they get drunk on the Seaside beach. Pilon, to punish Joe for stealing from his host, recovers the blanket and trades Joe's pants for wine, leaving Joe naked on the beach.

9 How Danny was ensnared by a vacuum cleaner and how Danny's friends rescued him. — Danny trades stolen copper nails for money for a vacuum cleaner from Mr. Simon, to give to Sweets Ramirez (who has no electricity). Sweets pretends she has electricity, and Danny wins her favors. He spends every evening with Sweets, until Pilon, telling himself he misses his friend, takes the vacuum and trades it to Torelli, the local shopkeep, for wine. Torelli then finds the vacuum which has been "run" with pretend electricity, actually has a pretend motor.

10 How the friends solaced a corporal and in return received a lesson in paternal ethics. — Jesus Maria befriends a young man with a baby, and brings him to the house. The baby is sick. A Capitán has stolen the man's wife. The baby dies, and the man explains why he wanted the baby to be a Generál, not so that he may steal other men's wives, instead of being stolen from, but for his child's happiness. The friends are touched by the corporal's sincerity.

11 How, under the most adverse circumstances, love came to Big Joe Portagee. — Joe Portagee comes out of the rain into Tia Ignacia's. He drinks her wine, goes to sleep, and wakes up to a beating from the woman because he drank her wine and did NOT take advantage of her. In the midst of fending off this attack in the middle of the street and in the rain, he is stricken with lust. A policeman happens by and asks them to stop doing what they're doing in middle of the muddy road.

12 How Danny's friends assisted the pirate to keep a vow, and how as a reward for merit the pirate's dogs saw a holy vision. — The pirate finally trusts Danny and delivers his bag of quarters into the house, whereupon the bag disappears. Big Joe is beaten into unconsciousness for stealing the money. The friends take the thousand quarters which the pirate has earned over several years of woodcutting, to Father Ramon for him to buy a candlestick and feast. In San Carlos Church on Sunday the Pirate sees his candlestick before St. Francis. The dogs rush into the church and must be removed. Later the pirate preaches all of Fr. Ramon's St. Francis stories to the dogs, which are suddenly startled by something behind him, which the pirate believes must be a vision.

13 How Danny's friends threw themselves to the aid of a distressed lady. — The unmarried Teresina Cortez has a menagerie of nine healthy babies and children, who all live on nothing but tortillas and beans, but nevertheless are found amazingly healthy by the school doctor. Teresina gleans the beans from the fields. As the Madonna of the tale, Teresina produces the droves of babies with seemingly no particular help. When the bean crop is ruined by rain, Danny's housemates steal food all over Monterey for the children. It makes them sick. However, the arrival of some stolen sacks of beans at the door is deemed a miracle, the children regain their health, and Teresina is also pregnant again. She wonders which one of Danny's friends was responsible.

14 Of the good life at Danny's house, of a gift pig, of the pain of Tall Bob, and of the thwarted love of the viejo Ravanno. — Why the windows shouldn't be cleaned. The friends tell stories. Danny: how Cornelia lost Emilio's little pig to its sow. Pablo: how everyone laughed after Tall Bob blew his nose off. Jesus Maria: how Petey Ravanno got Gracie by hanging himself and being rescued at exactly the right moment, thus convincing her of his love; and how Petey's father the viejo (old man) hanged himself to get the same effect, but the door blew shut at exactly the wrong moment, and nobody saw him.

15 How Danny brooded and became mad. How the Devil in the shape of Torelli assaulted Danny's house. — Danny moves to the forest and can't be found by his friends. When Torelli shows the friends the bill of sale for Danny's house, they steal and burn it.

16 Of the sadness of Danny. How through sacrifice Danny's friends gave a party. How Danny was translated. — Danny is deeply remorseful. His friends work a whole day cutting squid for Chin Lee. All of Tortilla Flat makes a party at Danny's home. He enjoys many women, and challenges all men to fight (wielding a table leg). He dies after a forty-foot fall into the gulch.

17 How Danny's sorrowing friends defied the conventions. How the talismanic bond was burned. How each friend departed alone. — Danny's friends cannot dress adequately for his military funeral. They tell stories of him beforehand, in the gulch. Afterward, they drink wine stolen by Pilon from Torelli's. Pablo sings "Tuli Pan." A small fire is accidentally set in the house, and the friends watch in approval, doing nothing to save it. No two walk away together from the smoking ruins.

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
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 become one thing, so that... 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."

In his first commercial success, the 1935 “Tortilla Flat” shares the tales of Danny and his friends in their adventurous lives of the self-chosen unemployment while living in two houses that Danny inherited from an uncle. Thematically, Steinbeck himself compared Danny and his friends to Arthur and his knights while the house is the round table with an oath of devotion expressed via food (and wine). Despite owning the houses raised Danny’s status on the impoverished neighborhood, they were burdens that Danny never wanted.

Perhaps it’s my own mistaken expectations, but mischiefs far dominated philanthropy. Act for act, though they may be loyal to each other, they were otherwise bullies, drunks, thieves, and cheats. I developed no affinity for any character except the slow-witted Pirate and his 5 loyal dogs. The first half of the book drew this group together, while the second half had random tales of their adventures leading up to the spectacular ending that then disbanded the group. I was truly glad that Steinbeck took the ending to the dark side giving it a rightful finality. While there are parallels to “Canary Row” with the camaraderie amongst transients, “Tortilla Flat” is far better organized with an ending that left impressions of bleakness, rage, and depression.

Though I had little affinity to the characters, there is an undeniable charm to their simple existence. Material value, a vacuum – a shiny object that doesn’t function without electricity in their area, caused an uproar, and the reveal that it lacked a motor implies an emptiness of such modern conveniences. The artfulness of his writing emerged with implied images of action but not the exact action itself – on stealing food: “They did not take the basket, but always afterward their hats and their shirts were stained with deviled eggs.” This is a solid worthy read, and I pity the nine publishers that had turned it down. :)

Some quotes:

On kindness:
“Out of some deep pouch in his soul Jesus Maria drew kindness that renewed itself by withdrawal.”

On being 50 – yikes:
“Her mother, that ancient, dried, toothless one, relict of a past generation, was nearly fifty.”

On confessions:
“Teresina went often to confession. She was the despair of Father Ramon. Indeed he had seen that while her knees, her hands, and her lips did penance for an old sin, her modest and provocative eyes, flashing under drawn lashes, laid the foundation for a new one.”

On sexual prowess:
“A dying organism is often observed to be capable of extraordinary endurance and strength… When any living organism is attacked, its whole function seems to aim toward reproduction…. No one kept actual count, and afterward, naturally, no lady would willingly admit that she had been ignored; so that the reputed prowess of Danny may be somewhat overstated. One tenth of it would be an overstatement for anyone in the world.”

On impending doom:
From Danny: “’Am I alone in the world? Will no one fight with me? ...Then I will go out to The One who can fight. I will find The Enemy who is worthy of Danny!’” ( )
1 vote varwenea | Feb 21, 2016 |
Tortilla Flat is about a group of drunken slackers and their friendship with each other. When Danny inherits a house, one by one, all his friends end up moving in with him, and although they have nothing, they somehow manage to take care of each other’s basic needs.

I wasn’t fond of any of the characters at first, but by the middle of the book, they had grown on me. The strength of their friendship with each other and the simple, free lives they lead are really touching and nostalgic. It’s definitely not one of Steinbeck’s best books, but it comes together quite nicely by the end. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
The ne'r do well paisanos of Tortilla Flat, a piney, ramshackle wood above the shoreside Monterrey, are colorfully featured here. Danny's little house becomes shelter for his buddies, all of whom live day by day on pawned and pilfered items - mostly traded for remnant food and gallon jars of wine. Chapters are vignettes focused on another adventure, usually introducing another paisano to the fold. Sparks of wit and common-man philosophy keep the stories lively. Steinbeck is one of my tried and trues. I read this in his Library of America collection of stories, 1932-37. ( )
  JamesMScott | Jan 5, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (23 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Steinbeckprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bovenkamp, J.G.H. van denTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fensch, ThomasIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gannett, Ruth ChrismanIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McDonough, JohnNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prins, ApieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rotten, ElisabethÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vittorini, ElioTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Susan Gregory of Monterey
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This is the story of Danny and of Danny's friends and of Danny's house. (Preface)
When Danny came home from the army he learned that he was an heir and an owner of property.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Adopting the structure and themes of the Arthurian legend, Steinbeck created a "Camelot" on a shabby hillside above the town of Monterey, California, and peopled it with a colorful band of knights. At the center of the tale is Danny, whose house, like Arthur's castle, becomes a gathering place for men looking for adventure, camaraderie, and a sense of belonging. These "knights" are paisanos, men of mixed heritage, whose ancestors settled California hundreds of years before. Free of ties to jobs and other complications of the American way of life, they fiercely resist the corrupting tide of honest toil in the surrounding ocean of civil rectitude.

As Steinbeck chronicles their deeds -- their multiple loves, their wonderful brawls, their Rabelaisian wine-drinking -- he spins a tale as compelling and ultimately as touched by sorrow as the famous legends of the Round Table, which inspired him.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140042407, Mass Market Paperback)

Adopting the structure and themes of the Arthurian legend, Steinbeck created a "Camelot" on a shabby hillside above Monterey on the California coast and peopled it with a colorful band of knights. As Steinbeck chronicles their thoughts and emotions, temptations and lusts, he spins a tale as compelling, and ultimately as touched by sorrow, as the famous legends of the Round Table.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:59 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

In the shabby district called Tortilla Flat above Monterey, California lives a group of jobless Hispanic men who, in complete disregard of social conventions and expectations, cheerfully reside in a world of idyllic poverty.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 7 descriptions

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