Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck is advertised as an Arthurian tale. At best it is an Arthurian community within the tale. But it is quintessential Steinbeck.
I did not like The Grapes of Wrath when I read it in the second semester of my Junior year of high school. I still can’t put my finger on why. It took another six weeks, when the unit rolled over, for me to fall in love with Steinbeck’s prose. I did so in reading Cannery Row. Tortilla Flat falls somewhere in the middle of these two. I see shades of both. In many ways, Tortilla Flat feels like a dry run for Cannery Row. The episodic nature of the books and the community of those just outside society while being central to it are important to both. However, where Cannery Row balances that act, Tortilla Flat sometimes founders in it.
Thankfully, one place in which Tortilla Flat succeeds is the descriptions. I could spend all day reading Steinbeck’s descriptions of Monterey Bay and the surrounding area. His intimate knowledge of the town and the workings of it is truly that of a lover. Considering I feel much the same way about Monterey (it helps that I spent some time there as a young child and teen), it’s difficult not to curl up with these books and just revel in the beauty and lover-like caresses in the words. Here is one of my favorites from the book:
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 fisherman 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 bite at low tide.
At three o’clock the wind veered around and blew softly in from the bay, bringing in all manner of fine kelp odors. The menders of nets in the vacant lots of Monterey put down their spindles and rolled cigarettes. Through the streets of the town, fat ladies, in whose eyes lay the weariness and the wisdom one sees so often in the eyes of pigs, were trundled in overpowered motorcars toward tea and gin fizzes at the Hotel Del Monte. On Alvarado Street, Hugo Machado, the tailor, put a sign in his shop door, “Back in Five Minutes,” and went home for the day. The pines waved slowly and voluptuously. The hens in a hundred hen yards complained in placid voices of their evil lot.
Steinbeck’s descriptions of the town are beyond compare. I have yet to find another author who has so accurately captured a scene and then placed the picture in my head. However, he outshines himself in his descriptions of people. Danny and the boys (the Round Table of Tortilla Flat) are so very alive.
Jesus Maria Corcoran was a pathway for the humanities. Suffering he tried to relieve; sorrow he tried to assuage; happiness he shared. No hard nor haunted Jesus Maria existed. His heart was free for the use of anyone who had a use for it. His resources and wits were at the disposal of anyone who had less of either than had Jesus Maria.
He it was who carried José de la Nariz four miles when José’s leg was broken. When Mrs. Palochico lost the goat of her heart, the good goat of milk and cheese, it was Jesus Maria who traced that goat to Big Joe Portagee and halted the murder and made Big Joe give it back. It was Jesus Maria who once picked Charlie Marsh out of a ditch where he lay in his own filth, a deed which required not only a warm heart, but a strong stomach.
Together with his capacity for doing good, Jesus Maria had a gift for coming in contact with situations where good wanted doing.
Such was his reputation that Pilon had once said, “If that Jesus Maria had gone into the Church, Monterey would have had a saint for the calendar, I tell you.”
This is something I love about Steinbeck. Even though Jesus Maria is one of the best, he is still simple and does not aspire to much. He’s also a drunken lout like the rest of the boys. There are no saints in Steinbeck’s books, but in the same manner, neither are there sinners. Or at the very least, they are all sinners who are doing their best to get by. Even the innocent and the beautiful have fault. The worst and the greatest stand proudly together saying, “We’re trying the best we can. No one can ask for more.” And they’re right. No one can ask for more, not rightly.
The main character, Danny, is not an Arthur figure. The men are the knights without an Arthur. They follow Danny at first, but each man has his time to shine. The Pirate leads them to a better, less sinful and more industrious life for a while. Pilon always leads to ridiculous schemes. Often times they lead each other to jail. Danny is slightly elevated because he owns the house he lives in, but this is all that really sets him apart. There is an equality in their brotherhood.
The tragedy of this particular book is that it feels as if it isn’t fully realized. There is so much that could be done and should be done, but isn’t. The most beautiful scene is at the end, when the boys throw a party for Danny to pull him out of a chapters long funk. It’s a sweet gesture, and Danny becomes otherworldly in his beauty and might. The reader knows, long before those who are present at the scene, what will happen come morning. And yet, it doesn’t feel like Steinbeck made a mistake or was too obvious in his foreshadowing. It just seems that the outcome is inevitable. However, it takes the whole book to fall into the wonderful rhythm of this scene. While the other vignettes (for this is truly a book of related vignettes, hardly plot-filled) are good, and establish histories that are important and come together in this last scene, I feel as if I could read the last few chapters and be just fine.
As I said, this almost feels like a dry run for Cannery Row, which is written in a very similar style (the interconnected episodes) as well as housing a similar community. Some of the events of this book may even be obliquely referenced in Cannery Row (I’m not positive, though I’m pretty sure). It’s a beautiful book of love and brotherhood, of men how are neither devils nor angels. They’re just men who try their best to eke out a mostly happy existence. Though this may not be what I aspire to, in many ways it is what I hope for–to do my best and find that it’s been enough. Steinbeck expresses this hope, as well as the beauty of nature and people, so very eloquently. This is not my favorite of his works. But it is ever good.