Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck. Covici-Friede (1935), 316 pp.
When he returns home from military service, Danny discovers that he’s inherited two houses in the hilly barrio on the outskirts of Monterey. He worries at first that his new status as property owner will lure him away from his previous life of lazy inebriation. But when his deadbeat paisanos -- manipulative Pilon, homeless Pablo, kindly Jesus Maria Corcoran, and later feeble-minded Pirate -- move in, it becomes clear that neither he nor they will adopt a lifestyle of sobriety and hard work.
Here we have Steinbeck in his happy mode. The chapter titles are are absurdly grandiloquent. The narrator is sardonic but not malicious. The characters never intend serious harm. The episodes, one per chapter, center on innocuous pranks or silly schemes. Tragedy is absent. The novel’s tale of happy-go-lucky obliviousness to the outside world struck a chord during the depression. Now, 186 editions later, it still charms audiences. Still, modern readers might experience some queasiness as they go through the book. Lives of poverty, drunkenness, and minor crime could seem more pathetic than humorous. Further, Steinbeck’s portrayal of Mexican Americans -- this is the first California novel to take a long look at. them -- could appear closer to condescension or disparagement than esteem. Without having furnished a glimpse of their larger community, he could be deemed guilty of concocting an escapist fantasy at their expense. Or maybe it’s all just good fun. Readers will need to decide this for themselves.