I know, I know. I haven’t been writing for quite a while. I’m really sorry. Honest. It’s just that my family has been going through some trials the past few months. Trials dealing mainly with the nanny state. I’ll leave it there for now because I have no desire to recall even the tiniest bit of having to deal with bureaucrats with no common sense.
Fortunately, I have continued reading. Indeed, reading is one of the things that has kept me somewhat sane amidst the lunacy. Reading something good is especially helpful. Reading John Steinbeck can be life renewing. It can also be just plain fun. So I picked up a collection of Steinbeck’s short novels and started reading “Tortilla Flat,” which I hadn’t read before. It’s a pretty easy read and, at a mere 207 pages, a pretty fast one too. But what got me interested in this particular novel was its background.
Now here’s something most people don’t know. To really appreciate “Tortilla Flat” you need to be familiar with the Arthurian legends, particularly Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It seems that Steinbeck was a big fan of Malory’s book. He even claimed that his love for the English language came from reading it. In the preface to “Tortilla Flat” Steinbeck comes right out and tells the reader that “Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it,” Danny, of course, being the stand-in for Arthur here.
“Tortilla Flat” is more a series of misadventures than a sustained tale, and that works very well for illustrating the vagaries of human nature as Steinbeck does here. We begin when Danny gets out of the army and returns home to find he has inherited two small houses from his grandfather on Tortilla Flat, a small district just above Monterey, California. At first he’s happy about it. Danny moves into the larger house and his friend, Pilon, moves into the smaller one. Over the course of the book several more friends move in with Pilon and eventually with Danny. These are the “knights” of Danny’s Round Table.
Of course, these friends are not knights. They’re not even British. They’re what Steinbeck calls “paisanos” which he defines as being “a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and assorted Caucasian bloods.” They aren’t saints either. Quite the opposite, as Steinbeck makes clear throughout. But neither are they completely devoid of good. As the book’s episodes illustrate, good and evil in human actions and motivations are rarely well delineated. Indeed, they are usually jumbled together and can change from one moment to the next. Steinbeck puts it this way: “It is astounding to find that the belly of every black and evil thing is as white as snow. And it is saddening to discover how the concealed parts of angels are leprous.” Yes, he does have a way with words.
The other theme that parallels these tales of good dancing with evil has to do with what causes so much of both: material possessions. Danny, who had little of such, at first enjoys being a man of property and shares his good fortune with his friends. But over the course of the book the weight of ownership and the responsibility it brings are too much for Danny. Even small possessions can be like chains.
How Danny gets free from them I’ll leave for you to discover when you read this wonderful book. And you should read (or re-read) it. This is an American classic by one of our best writers.