When I was in high school, John Steinbeck was my favorite writer. Rereading Tortilla Flat after all these years has reminded me why. When it comes to books, there are those that you read, those that you experience, and those that you climb into and live in for a while. Steinbeck's short novels have always had that effect on me. In particular, it is those novellas that focus on a group or a small town that really had the most profound effect, especially Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and of course Tortilla Flat.
This is the story of Danny and his friends, a group of paisanos, which Google tells me is a group of Spanish or Italian peasants. Growing up, I always looked at them as poor Mexican/American immigrants, so I guess I was a bit close. Basically, they are a group of poor ruffians who go on adventures, stealing wine and chasing women until they accidentally draft themselves into the war in a drunken fit of courage. Upon returning, Danny, who becomes the leader, learns that his grandfather has died and left him an inheritance: two houses. In a social circle where no one else has a house, let alone two, this is a huge boon for Danny, but his friends worry that it will make him distant and aloof. But, instead, this newfound property draws to it a ragtag group of characters, including righteous Pilon, clever Pablo, and the humanitarian Jesus Maria.
Despite taking place in 1930s California, this story is a retelling of the exploits of Arthur and his knights. Our heroes go on adventures, feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. They give offerings to the saints and punish scoundrels and cheats. It is a beautiful, romanticized story of a group of men just living out their lives. I have two quotes which I think apply here. One came from the back of my copy and is attributed to William Rose Benet:
The extraordinary humors of these curiously childlike natives are presented with a masterly touch. These silly bravos are always about to do something nice for each other, their hearts are soft and easily touched: and yet almost absentmindedly they live with atrocious disregard for scruple.
And this second comes not from Tortilla Flat, but from another Steinbeck favorite, Cannery Row:
Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.