My wife and I recently enjoyed a weekend away in Somerset. During the weekend, we visited the pretty town of Frome, where (along with some great cafés) we found a great little independent bookshop named Hunting Raven Books.

Now, a few weeks previous to this, my brother-in-law had mentioned that he had really enjoyed reading John Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat, so when I found a copy for sale at Hunting Raven Books I snapped it up.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Years ago I read what are probably John Steinbeck’s two most famous novels, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Both novels focus on the lives of simple, poor farm labourers in the 1930s, and the hardships that they face. They are both brilliant pieces of literature that have been read and loved by many millions of people. They are also both fairly serious works – by which I mean that they both clearly have a thing or two to say about the state of America in the 1930s. They speak of poverty and injustice, of prejudice and of hypocrisy.

What I didn’t appreciate until years later was that Steinbeck was a multi talented and curious writer, who experimented with various different types of writing during his long writing career. For example, as well as novels, novellas and short stories, he wrote a play (The Moon is Down), a film (The Forgotten Village), a kind of modern-day parable (The Pearl), as well as non-fiction books about topics ranging from marine biology to King Arthur.

A few years after reading Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, I then read Cannery Row, which is very different in style. Cannery Row is full of loveable rogues and, at the most basic level, the entire story is simply about their attempts to throw a great party for their friend Doc. Yet it’s a cracking read. The book is vibrant and mischievous and in some ways is not dissimilar to a Jack Kerouac novel.

All of which leads me back to Tortilla Flat, which is similar in style and in setting to Cannery Row. Certainly Tortilla Flat is fun and energetic and genuinely funny. In fact, the back cover of my Penguin Modern Classics edition claims:

Steinbeck’s first major critical and commercial success. Tortilla Flat is also his funniest novel.

The novel chronicles the daily lives of a selection of paisanos (think country peasants) living in Monterey, California in the early part of the twentieth century. These characters live incredibly simple lives, sharing friendship and wine in the warmth of the sun. They own almost nothing, very rarely work, and yet there is a real richness to their lives.

Danny is the central character of the piece, and at the beginning of the novel he finds out that he has inherited two small houses from his grandfather. These houses he soon fills with various friends, and from then onwards, the story follows the adventures of this small community.

I used the word “adventures” in my previous paragraph, yet it might be more fitting to call these escapades “quests”, for Steinbeck very clearly models the book on the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Here is an excerpt from the Preface:

For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and their endeavors.

You get a good idea of this structuring when you see the chapter titles. Here are just the first six:

  1. How Danny, home from the wars, found himself an heir, and how he swore to protect the helpless
  2. How Pilon was lured by greed of position to forsake Danny’s hospitality
  3. How the poison of possessions wrought with Pilon, and how evil temporarily triumphed in him
  4. How Jesus Maria Corcoran, a good man, became an unwilling vehicle of evil
  5. How Saint Francis turned the tide and put a gentle punishment on Pilon and Pablo and Jesus Maria
  6. How three sinful men, through contrition, attained peace. How Danny’s friends swore comradeship

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tortilla Flat. It is original, fun, charming, and funny. I highly recommend it!

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.