Book Review: Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (1935)

As some of you know, I’ve been reading Steinbeck on and off for the last couple of years (Of Mice and Men review); what I said then holds true. Steinbeck’s as accessible and as easy to read as Hemingway, which means I’ve read a bunch of him, and the Faulkner I was supposed to read in college remains on my to-read shelves.

This book deals with a group of Mexican-Americans who live in Tortilla Flat, a small, er, suburb of Monterey populated by Mexican Americans. It’s set immediately after the first world war. The main characters are layabouts. It’s not so much a novel as a collection of anecdotes or loosely-related stories, a la Winesburg, Ohio. Actually, considering that the pastime of the main characters is stealing or trading for gallons of wine, perhaps this book should be called Winesburg, California. But it’s not.

To keep with the spirit of the book, I drank much red wine while reading it. The level in my bottle went down, down, and perhaps I enjoyed the book more for it. Still, I couldn’t apply too many lessons of the book to my life, since none of my neighbors have chickens I can steal, and because I like to think my life has more meaning than acquiring money for wine. I’m a Guinness man, don’t you know?

Still, the ultimate point of this book might be that there’s more to life than laying about and drinking. However, the thin characterization and even the thin narration don’t really compel the reader to make those conclusions. It’s sort of like an epidode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We were lazing about, stealing for wine, and an incident occurred.

Unlike Star Trek: The Next Generation, though, you can sound a bit snooty when you say, “This reminds me of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat….” So if you like quick reads in Great American Literature, pick it up. Especially if you can score it as part of a Steinbeck set at $1 each like I did. Werd.

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