Saturday, January 15, 2011

Review: Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

There are some authors whom I read which I feel can do no wrong; everything I read that they have published is truly brilliant and I feel such a connection for the writing, the characters and the general feel of their works.  From an American literature standpoint, I hold two writers on a pedestal: Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.

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:

" 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.


Phil said...

If Steinbeck’s lovable paisanos were alive today, their condition would have been undoubtedly medicalized. They would have been labelled alcoholics, unrepentant criminals, psychopaths, sexually disordered, and perhaps several other pathologies laid out in the DSM, the handbook that modern psychologists and psychiatrists use to diagnose society’s outcasts. According to this “disease” model, individuals who engage in this behaviour are subject to chemical imbalances which they cannot control, and as such the deleterious consequences of their actions are insufficient to stop them.
The paisanos demonstrate that this disease model of human behaviour is questionable. They accept—no, enjoy—the consequences of getting pissed drunk on a daily basis, including the need to steal others’ property, the thrilling and exhilarating fights with one another, and the promiscuous rendezvous with many of the local women. But in the midst of what others would think of as debauchery, there was a strong sense of belonging, trust, camaraderie, solidarity, and interpersonal harmony. It is a testament to Steinbeck’s skill as a writer that he is able to humanize the paisanos; to make them lovable, honourable, hilarious, warm, and understanding. Steinbeck was able to do this, in part, because he conveys a side of society’s underclass that is obscured by the dominant stereotypes that are held about them. And what makes this all the more powerful is that Steinbeck’s depiction is accurate. As many sociologists and criminologists will affirm, the social structure of society’s underclass has many of the positive characteristics that are often associated with law abiding and sober people, such as honour, a strong moral code, faith, and altruism. All these attributes, for example, were on display when the paisanos, instead of stealing the Pirates money, helped him to save for the golden candle for Saint Francesco.
Steinbeck is at his greatest when he demonstrates how these attributes can become twisted, ex post rationalizations that justify the most outrageous behaviour. Such as when Pilon, the bright one of the group, decides that he wants to steal the Pirates money, and decides that this theft would be justified in order to “help” the Pirate. These twisted ex post rationalizations emerge out of the schizophrenic nature of the paisanos lifestyle, where trust and deception, faithfulness and betrayal, solidarity and selfishness, are in constant tension with one another. This tension, as many psychologists would point out, would lead to a cognitive dissonance that would become unbearable without these ex post rationalizations. Thus Pilon senses that stealing the Pirate’s money is wrong, but by conceptually turning it into an altruistic act, it becomes acceptable. It is instructive, and emblematic of the twisted character of the paisanos lifestyle, that this plan to steal the Pirate’s money, rather than coming to fruition, sets in a train of events that allows the Pirate to realize his dream of buying the candle for Saint Francesco.
Some readers may be offended by Steinbeck’s portrayal of this group of Mexican-Americans and assume that this upper middle class Anglo-Saxon should not have perpetuated stereotypes that only serve to reinforce misconceptions and prejudice. But this is unfair to Steinbeck. All groups, including the dominant Anglo-Saxon’s who read and enjoyed Steinbeck’s book, have their outcasts, and Steinbeck’s portrayal of the Mexican-American underclass achieves the exact opposite of what these critics claim. With skilful and hilarious prose, he demonstrates the human, lovable, creative, and social side of this group of outcasts. He demonstrates that we who are part of society’s dominant, “normal” class, actually have much in common with the paisanos.

Amanda said...

I'm sorry this wasn't as good as it could have been. My next Steinbeck is going to be The Winter of our Discontent. I hope I like it! I tend to like his longer works but not the shorter ones as much.

Taylor said...

I won't be able to make it to the meeting on this book this week, so I thought I'd throw my two cents in here. I was surprised you didn't like this book more; I thought the humour and absurdity of the book might have made you appreciate it. I knew nothing about Tortilla Flat going in, and I must admit that the surreality of the characters took me a bit of time to adjust to. I could say the same about Catch-22, which this book reminded me of in its tone, and which I ended up really enjoying. Like Catch-22, this is one of the few books that has been able to actually make me laugh out loud in a couple of parts, and I really enjoyed the humourous tone that could be found throughout it. Near the end when there are two chapters (including the final one) which take a decidedly darker turn, it was such a contrast to the light-heartedness of the rest of the book that I found myself taken aback that much more.

The thing I enjoyed most about Tortilla Flat was that I started out feeling sorry for all the characters; their lives seemed so empty and purposeless and devoid of any ambitions other than getting drunk or tricking someone into sleeping with them. But as the book progressed, I realized how happy these people were with their situation, limited as it was, and I thought: "Wouldn't it be GREAT to live a life where my biggest concern was when I could next get drunk or laid?" Our lives today are so hectic and complex that we can't appreciate life's simple pleasures the way these characters do.

I would agree that the allusions to Arthurian legend were a bit of a miss, but I'd tend to say that to anyone trying to over-analyze a book. If we concern ourselves too much with looking for parallels in one story to another, we end up not seeing the forest for the trees, and we should just try to enjoy it as it is.

I thought Tortilla Flat was a fun and thought-provoking read. I somehow managed to make it through high school without reading anything by John Steinbeck, but after this I think I would give him a try.

Eclectic Indulgence said...

Taylor, was glad to hear you enjoyed Steinbeck because I think he may just become one of your favourites depending on what you read next. 'East of Eden, is long, but well worth it. If you feel daunted with that, I guarantee you'll enjoy 'Of Mice and Men.'

Will see you in February.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised at your disappointment with Tortilla Flat. I read it immediately after finishing The Grapes of Wrath and really enjoyed it.

While certainly on a different level, Tortilla Flat was a bit of a roller coaster ride in that the reader is looking for an even mood and not finding one. Let's just say I went for the ride, threw my arms in the air and screamed with joy at the crest.

Hopefully any unread Steinbeck will deliver more joy.

Laura said...

As I said at the Christmas party, I absolutely loved this novel. (Maybe someday Chris and I will agree about a book.) It's my favourite of the books we've read so far. I actually liked the Authorian Legend parallels and the fact that the characters interact in anachronistic, mildly chivalrous, English: I think it provides an interesting twist on the significance of chivalry or nobility. After all, is there really all that much moral difference between a bunch of crusading knights in the 10th century and a group of homeless drunks refusing to uphold working class social norms? But mostly I love the writing. The book is laugh-out-loud funny in parts, while the section on Pirate attending the sermon on the dogs is one of the sweetest, most moving things I've ever read for how well it shows where pleasure and satisfaction come from and how perfect and fleeting they are. To me, the book showcases the idea that our notions of morality and decency are mostly subjective, i.e. Danny's "generosity" is hugely appreciated by his friends even though he's basically a destructive and self-destructive douche. (The same could be said for Authur's knights, like Monty Python showed.) But there are universal notions of grace, generosity, pleasure and tragedy as well. So in my opinion, Tortilla Flat is a great philosophical novel, made much much better by the fact of its irreverance for philosophy and social order.