And this is, really, the essence of what Steinbeck’s writing is about – making a lot with a little. This is the case with both the actual content of his books, usually revolving around poor folks travelling light and living off beans, as well as his actual writing style. With each sentence, Steinbeck has always managed to create the most enchanting and encompassing atmospheres and landscapes with the most incredibly succinct language. Every line throughout his bibliography feels expertly crafted, and Tortilla Flat is no different. The preface’s opening sentence immediately and rhythmically states its claim – ‘This is a story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house.’ – and we are instantly captured by the clarity, the starkness of Steinbeck’s world. From here, we drift effortlessly through the novel and open ourselves up for some truly breath-taking writing that champions a simple life, free from material possessions:
‘The fire died down; the stove cricked as it cooled. The candle tipped over and expired in its own grease, with little blue, protesting flares. The house was dark and quiet and peaceful.’
However, what separates Tortilla Flat from the rest of Steinbeck’s catalogue is how surprisingly funny it is. I struggle to think of a book which has made me laugh out loud so many times. Set in a time just before The Great Depression hit hard across America, Tortilla Flat carries with it a breezy and light-hearted optimism. There’s a real goofishness to the stories on display here and their characters, as the novel descends into an exercise in how to feed one’s alcoholism in the most entertaining and elaborate way possible. In this sense, Tortilla Flat actually holds an edge over Steinbeck’s other works because we genuinely love these characters for their ridiculousness, rather than because we pity their struggle. Pilon could be plotting to steal a lady’s vacuum cleaner, or in a more tender moment the gang could be offering support to a wayward Corporal who has lost his family, but whichever way the novel blows there is a charm and a wit executed more effectively and more tastefully than in many other bodies of classic literature.
This pocket-sized book contains all the beauty and tranquillity that we would expect of John Steinbeck, but packaged in a totally unique way that brings a constant smile to the face of the reader. Even when there are troubled times, when even the best laid plans go astray, what remains is a spellbinding story of comradery, of found family, and a reminder that when times are tough and money is short, there is nothing more priceless than a cheap bottle of wine and five good friends to share it with.