Saturday, January 15, 2011
Because these are two of my favourite authors, I tend to read more of their obscure work after I have picked over some of their more well-known literature. Sometimes I find hidden gems, and as one blogger put it, finding such a gem is like having a secret connection with a writer that only you know about. It's special, because not very many people have experienced it. When I read 'The Winter of Our Discontent' as well as 'Travels with Charley' by Steinbeck, I felt strongly that these were some of those works.
However, reading some of the lesser known works sometimes sets your idyllic authors up for failure. Such was the case with 'Tortilla Flats' for me, which echo's my feelings towards another work set in Monterrey, 'Cannery Row.'
The novel is about a group of paisanos in the town 'Tortilla Flats' that are essential homeless men who steal from others within their town. When local boy 'Danny' comes home from the war, he inherits two houses after the death of a relative and moves into one house while his friends move into the other.
The book is about the friendship of these paisanos, who find the company of each other welcome and they become a close-knit family who looks out for each other. The generosity in these fellows is felt by many in Tortilla Flat that come upon hard times. While not educated and generally lazy (only one friend occasionally works, with very limited exceptions), they are able to get by on minimalistic possessions and a large quantity of wine (for those that read Hemingway - the magnitude of drinking in this novel is similar).
I won't go into the plot details, but I must say that the book leaves me feeling rather ho-hum. When reading about Steinbeck's intent from Wikipedia, there are a few things that stand out. Like in East of Eden when Steinbeck linked his work to the story of Cain and Abel, in Tortilla Flat Steinbeck links his plot to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. However, unlike in the former work, he is less implicit in his linking in 'Tortilla Flat'... and I only really found out about the allusion afterwards [Warning: Potential Plot Spoilers in upcoming quotation]:
"Steinbeck critic Joseph Fontenrose has shown how closely Tortilla flat parallels the Arthurian saga. He sees these parallels : After an obscure boyhood Arthur inherits a kingdom and is transformed from ordinary manhood to lord of the land (Danny inherits two houses); the new king has trouble with subject kings and barons who refuse to pay homage (Pilon and Pablo refuse to pay rent on Danny's second house), but are finally defeated ( the house burns down), and reconciled. Arthur (Danny) gathers knights (friends) to his Round Table and gives them lands (shelter and a place to sleep). The knights swear an oath of devotion (Danny's friends promise to see that he will never go hungry). Arthur and his knights give their attention to Pelles, the maimed King, and the Grail that he kept (the Pirate and his treasure). In fact, Fontenrose traces such parallels throughout the entire book. (Services and symbols of the Catholic Church are also keys to both the King Arthur legends and Tortilla Flat.)"
I understand the intent, but I think it missed the mark.
In addition, Steinbeck came under criticism for his portrayal of the paisanos, and I can see why. While all the positive qualities I have mentioned above are characterized by Steinbeck, the paisanos are also sh*t disturbers and drunkards who go in and out of jail. Here is what he writes in the foreword for the 1937 Modern Library edition:
"..it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish. They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat...good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes. If I have done them harm by telling a few of their stories I am sorry. It will never happen again."
All that said, I really don't understand the point Steinbeck was looking to make. Wikipedia talks about a phalanx, where the group of men are more than the sum of their parts. I get it and I see where he is going, but I don't think the execution of this was present in the novel.
Steinbeck uses more wit in this work than in some of his other novels, and while I chuckled a few times, I felt that some of the jokes were forced... it was the subtle ones that really made me smile.
Steinbeck's writing was as smooth as ever, and there are occasional glimpses into the beauty of nature and his love of the Salinas' Valley (in California), but I didn't feel the pang of adventure in my heart like I have in other works by Steinbeck. All in all, I wouldn't recommend this book to the community unless you've read almost everything else by Steinbeck and are in need of some fluid Steinbeck prose.
I would love to hear other readers' opinions of the novel.