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Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Tortilla Flat (original 1935; edition 1977)

by John Steinbeck

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3,848601,343 (3.82)1 / 250
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 (48)  French (3)  Norwegian (2)  Finnish (2)  Dutch (1)  Spanish (1)  Hebrew (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (59)
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Tortilla Flat is the rambling, episodic story of a group of friends living in a poor Hispanic village near Monterey, California shortly after the end of WWI. Mostly they drink a lot of wine, steal or scam money to get more wine, take up with various women, fight each other, and support each other in their own idiosyncratic ways.

It's hard to know quite what to make of this one. It's certainly not what I expected after Of Mice and Men, which is the only other Steinbeck I've read so far. The tone is much lighter and more comic, and very drolly written... except when it's not, as there are moments, especially near the end, where the mood shifts and there are glimpses of odd, hard-to-make-out depths and difficult-to-pin-down emotions. It's interesting, but it's hard to know exactly what it all adds up to. And even though Steinbeck treats his characters with genuine humanity and affection, it's hard to escape the fact that they echo some really unpleasant stereotypes, and it's impossible not to feel a little uncomfortable about that. But, man, that Steinbeck guy could write. There are some marvelously crafted, insightful little turns of phrase here. Nothing flowery, nothing that calls attention to itself, just perfect little pieces of prose, gently doing their job of telling the story. Which probably makes the novel worthwhile all by itself.

Rating: This one is unbelievably hard to rate. I keep trying to give it less than a 4/5, but I just can't get myself to do it, apparently because I've fallen just that hard for the guy's writing style. So I guess 4/5 it is. But maybe with an asterisk. ( )
  bragan | Aug 26, 2015 |
In "Tortilla Flat," Steinbeck takes us to a town inhabited by paesanos, locals with mixed Mexican, Native American, and Caucasian heritage. In the years after World War I, a group of men come back with little purpose in life except to sit in the sun and drink wine, and occasionally take a breather in the local jail. What's been accused of a racist portrayal of these men (an accusation that's not without merit) also lends to a humorous account of a group of friends who have their own set of ethics and societal rules. It's a world where paying the rent is not as important as friendship. (In a hilarious passage, one of Danny's friends who owes him rent talks himself out of giving Danny money because his friend might use it to buy candy for a lady and try some himself, which would be bad for him.) Danny is the character who brings everyone together in the postwar years. One by one, a friend comes to live with him after he inherits two houses when his grandfather dies. Though an heir, Danny (like his friends) are happiest with the simple life; money and property only complicate matters. When Danny buys a gal he's sweet on a vacuum cleaner, a luxury no one else in the neighborhood has, not least because no one has electricity to use such a machine, it causes an uproar. Days are spent by sleeping, drinking, fighting, and chasing women, and the only ambition any of the men has is to scrounge enough coins together to buy some bootleg wine. But there is honor found here and there among the friends. Danny lodgers respect his place as homeowner by not sleeping in his bed. After the friends go to great lengths to try to steal the Pirate's money hoard, they back off when the Pirate himself offers it to them for safekeeping, the honor of being trusted worth more than the money inside the bag.

For all the troubling feelings one gets when reading about minorities being portrayed as shiftless, lazy, con artists, he injects these people with enough humanity and humor to temper it. They are alternately naive and clever, untrustworthy and honest, lusty and chaste. But there is something kind of noble about their lives, the way they find their greatest happiness in social interaction instead of riches and property. Perhaps Steinbeck idealizes their poverty too much, but tales in "Torilla Flat" show that humanity is still present even when wealth is not. ( )
  StoutHearted | Aug 17, 2015 |
I really enjoyed this walk along the streets of a culture unfamiliar to me. Steinbeck's description of the "Paisanos" in California is delightful and humorous. Although most people would rejoice upon inheriting real estate from a relative, Danny, one of several friends who come to live together in this story, regards it as a burden. Nonetheless, the friends come to enjoy their new life together until Danny comes to miss his old habits of sleeping in the woods and stealing whatever sustenance he needs. This is a fun read from beginning to end. ( )
  Coffeehag | Jan 23, 2015 |
My first book finished in 2015 and one I quite enjoyed. I do appreciate Steinbeck's writing and definitely will seek out more by him in the future. So far I only had read [The Pearl], which I equally liked.

"This is the story of Danny and of Danny's friends and of Danny's house."

“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.”

Tortilla Flat is a picaresque novella made up of seventeen loosely linked episodes. I felt that this anecdotal style highlighted the dire predicaments of a life in poverty and what it actually means to live on the brink of survival.

“This is the story” of a group of destitute paisanos who aren't interested in living by the system, which in the 1920's meant status and comfort, but prefer a carefree life, mainly wine, enough food and woman. They keep their dignity within a subculture, where conventional values are replaced by values of their own.
Danny is a young man who returns from the First World War and discovers that his uncle has left him two houses. Danny is someone who hasn't done much with his life and actually hasn't got the desire to do so anyway. The houses elevate his social status in Tortilla Flat, but any kind of snobbery is quite alien to Danny.
He becomes the “core” for a gradually expanding group of friends around him. We meet Pilon, Jesus Marie, Big Joe Portagee, Pablo and Pirate. Most of them share his aversion to any regulated activities, everything is shared in Danny's house fraternally.
The paisanos life is poor, but on the other hand it is rich and beautiful, Danny is what holds them together, despite all the economic problems. Life is not planned ahead, lived daily and intense. This rascal's trump card is their friendship, maintained humanity, in an environment of hopeless poverty and humility. Life is about survival and to preserve their own dignity. Even so that most of them are thieves and carpetbaggers, they are portrayed in a manner that you can't do anything else, but like them and feel with them.

“I will go out to The One who can fight. I will find The Enemy who is worthy of Danny.” These are Danny's last words!

Danny was the groups core, their bright light and when this finally expires, the group scatters like the leaves in the wind.
For some reason some parts made me chuckle and reminded me of Neil Gaimans [American Gods] and his [Anansi Boys], and other parts reminded me of “one for all, all for one” from the [Three Musketeers] by Dumas. ( )
  drachenbraut23 | Jan 2, 2015 |
With that title, I don’t mean to make light of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. Quite to the contrary. This short novel — which, in my youth, I once knew, read and loved as a ‘novella ’— I just read again. And loved again!

Steinbeck may be as close to a poet (albeit, in prose) as any writer this country has ever produced. But he’s more than a consummate prose writer. As a humorist, I believe he ranks right up there with Mark Twain — or maybe just a smidgen beneath. In any case, both men were superb observers (and chroniclers) of human nature. Both paid homage to Thomas Malory (of King Arthur fame): Steinbeck, with this novelette; Twain, with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And both carried on a tradition that would’ve done Malory proud.

As Thomas Fensch (who wrote the Introduction to the Penguin Classics version I just read) suggests, “…Steinbeck values the Arthurian legends and the paisanos too highly to demean either. By adding the language of the paisanos and their convoluted moral code to his novel, he elevates them toward Arthurian status, without demeaning them or the tales of the knights that he was captivated by throughout much of his life.”

Read Tortilla Flat for the unmitigated fun of it. Unlike Flannery O’Connor (whose Wise Blood I recently read and reviewed), I don’t believe Steinbeck looks down upon his rough-‘n’-tumble characters; if anything, he idolized them.

We should, too. They’re all knights errant of a different — and much more contemporary — century. And given the not dissimilar economic climates of Steinbeck’s novelette and our own times, I would suggest that Tortilla Flat is indeed both topical and relevant.

Now, on to Cannery Row!

Brooklyn, NY

( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
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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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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.
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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)

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