Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Tortilla Flat

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, July 17, 2001

Pilon complained, “It is not a good story. There are too many meanings and too many lessons in it. Some of those lessons are opposite. There is not a story to take into your head. It proves nothing.”
“I like it,” said Pablo. “I like it because it hasn’t any meaning you can see, and still it does seem to mean something, I can’t tell what.”

The first of Steinbeck’s novels to be set in the Monterey area, Tortilla Flat follows Danny, a paisano, from his inheritance of two houses through his “mystic end”.

AuthorJohn Steinbeck
Length174 pages
Book Rating6

“For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it.” Like the later Cannery Row series, this is a finespun modern myth, and like most of Steinbeck’s works, strongly recommended.

Like Cannery Row, “Tortilla Flat” takes place in Monterey. Danny is a mix of Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and “assorted Caucasian bloods”. He and two of his friends, Pilon and Joe Portagee, fought in World War I--or at least, they joined. Joe went to jail, Pilon went to Oregon, and Danny drove mules in Texas. When Danny returns from the war, he finds that he has inherited two houses in Tortilla Flat from his grandfather. At first he is angry about the responsibility, but after a month in the Montery jail he comes to view things slightly different. On his release (so to speak: the jailer took out him drinking and didn’t bring him back), he acquiesces, grudgingly, to the idea after a night drinking with Pilon. He moves into one house, and rents the other to Pilon.

Of course, Pilon never pays and Danny never asks for, rent. And it is good, until Danny begins calling on a woman, and wanting a little extra money for gifts. This causes the friends to fall out, at least for a while. Occasionally, they have adventures trying to find money to pay rent--and sometimes, they have adventures trying to spend the money before they can find a chance to pay their rent.

When they all move in together, they drink and tell stories, and find ways of cheating others out of food and money--not cheating, but relieving, as Danny would like to be relieved of the responsibilities of his possessions.

On Saint Andrew’s eve, they all wander through the forests, because “this was the night when all buried treasure sent up a faint phosphorescent glow through the ground”.

Every other page, someone is resolving to do something nice for someone else, and that, also, becomes an adventure. Usually, being nice to someone involves drinking their wine or eating their food. When Joe Portagee comes back from the army jail, he loses his pants while sleeping on the beach. Until Pilon returns, he must remain half-buried in the sand because some Girl Scouts are holding a campfire weenie bake.

Similar to Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, everyone decides to give Danny a party, and of course the party leads to a great event in Danny’s tale.

This is a fairy tale, like Peter Pan, but much closer to our modern home. While I make no claim to being a Steinbeck, it is Tortilla Flat, along with Peter Pan, that probably influenced me most when writing “The Shopping Cart Graveyard”. Steinbeck wanted to give us an American fairy tale; while he would later do even better with Cannery Row, this work is lesser only in comparison. On its own it is brilliant.

“Tortilla Flat” is a fairly short work, and it was originally written as a serial, making it great bathroom reading. So you have absolutely no excuses. You can purchase it separately, or in the collection “The Short Novels of John Steinbeck”, which contains all of my favorite Steinbeck stories, including “Tortilla Flat”.

Tortilla Flat

John Steinbeck

Recommendation: Purchase

If you enjoyed Tortilla Flat…

For more about John Steinbeck, you might also be interested in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, Of Mice and Men, and Satire isn’t comedy.

For more about life is unreal, you might also be interested in An Unlikely Prophet, Idiots, Imbeciles, and Morons, and The Secret Bookshelf.

For more about slums, you might also be interested in Ask the Dust, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, and Never Come Morning.