Post Road Magazine #25

The Wine Went down in the Bottle: The Passive Beauty of John Steinbeck's TORTILLA FLAT

Pete Hausler

John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat is a meandering, lyrical picaresque that follows the misadventures of a group of paisanos in the sleepy coastal town of Monterey, California. The eponymous Tortilla Flat lies "on the hill where the forest and town intermingle, where the streets are innocent of asphalt and the corners free of streetlights." In other words, the poor side of town. For the uninitiated, Steinbeck almost immediately defines a paisano: "He is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and assorted Caucasian bloods. His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or two years . . . He indignantly claims pure Spanish blood."

There is a languorous and passive beauty in the descriptions of the lives of this poor and simple group of friends (as a depiction of the poor, the novella is often lumped as a kindred spirit with another of Steinbeck's Monterey-set novels, Cannery Row.) When I say "simple," I don't mean to sound condescending. The raison d'ĂȘtre of the group is simply this: to simultaneously avoid work while somehow procuring enough money to buy wine (a dollar per gallon seems to be the going rate at that time and place), and then to pass a pleasant evening swapping stories and/or raising hell.

The group of friends—primarily Danny, Pablo, Pilon, Jesus Maria Corcoran, The Pirate, and Big Joe Portagee—pass their life in one long, hazy reverie of drinking, drink-induced light mischief, story-telling, dishing dirt, and passing judgment on the repetitive and sometimes hilarious events in the lives of their fellows. None of these proto-slacker anti-heroes really have to be anywhere or do anything, except for the above-mentioned wine procurement. A typical passage—and a typical day in Tortilla Flat—unfolds thusly:

The afternoon came down as imperceptibly as age comes to a happy man. A little gold entered into the sunlight. The bay became bluer and dimpled with shore-wind ripples . . . Pilon and Pablo sat under a pink Rose of Castile in Torrelli's yard and quietly drank wine and let the afternoon grow on them as gradually as hair grows.

The group's leader and spiritual fulcrum is the paisano known only as Danny (Steinbeck is stingy with last names; only some of the characters have them), who comes home from the First World War to find that he has inherited two dilapidated houses from his deceased Viejo. As a sudden man of property, Danny's station rises in the down-at-heels Tortilla Flat. But the burden of ownership weighs heavily upon Danny, who has heretofore been the proverbial pig-in-zen, happy to sleep rough in the woods, while eating and drinking through the largesse (or sometimes petty-theft) of his neighbors.

In deliberately stylized and at-times ironically-archaic prose, each chapter recounts an adventure of one of the characters, or relates the story of how each of Danny's five friends comes to live in his house. His second house burns down early in the book and this fire is played for laughs: Pablo, Pilon, and Jesus Maria, carelessly leave the woodstove door open, allowing an ember to ignite a pile of newspapers. Danny pretends to be angry at his nominal tenants—"nominal" because, despite grand promises, both landlord and tenant know that the tenants never intended to pay the rent; but in reality, Danny is relieved to have one less house to burden him. In the wake of the fire, he perceives that the friends will all now come to live in the remaining house.

The emotional heart and soul of the book—and what elevates the story from a rambling tale of drunken ne'er-do-wells into something sweeter and more profound—is a multi-chapter set-piece involving The Pirate. When we meet The Pirate, he lives in the chicken coop of an abandoned house with his five devoted dogs who follow him everywhere (The Pirate is so self-effacing that he could never presume to live in the house itself). Every morning, he sets out with his wheelbarrow and cuts, then sells, a load of firewood. Claiming that his humble abode and destitute lifestyle shame his friends, Pilon convinces The Pirate to move into Danny's house, where his status will be elevated in the eyes of his neighbors. Pilon, you see, knows that The Pirate never spends a dime of his money and is therefore sitting on a horde of cash.

As it turns out, The Pirate is saving the money to buy a gold candlestick for St. Francis, whom, The Pirate believes, answered his plea to cure one of his sick dogs. When the friends realize the money is promised to a saint, they make The Pirate's goal their goal and the stash ceases to be real currency in their collective mind. The friends assist The Pirate in guarding his treasure until such time that he has "a thousand two-bitses," which he can then present to the local priest, who will buy a gold candlestick in the name of the saint.

The bag of money becomes a sort of holy grail for the friends, bonding them into a unit. The evening ritual in which The Pirate banks his day's firewood wages links the group in a god-fearing alliance. Indeed, when Big Joe Portagee—the group's laziest and least trustworthy member—steals a few dollars from the St. Francis horde to buy wine, the other members of Danny's house methodically and savagely beat Big Joe into unconsciousness, then cross-hatch his back with razors and literally rub salt into his wounds.

When Steinbeck introduces the third-to-last chapter with the words, "There is a changeless quality about Monterey," you know that things are about to change. Indeed, the indolent routine in Danny's house "which might have been monotonous for anyone but a paisano" takes its toll on Danny. He becomes despondent, seemingly because "since his inheritance had lifted him, he had not fought often. He had been drunk, but not adventurously so." Yearning for his carefree days of old, Danny goes on a colossal bender, leaving a trail of vandalism and cuckolded women, and even stooping to steal from his friends.

The last straw for the friends is when Danny, in a drunken stupor, sells the house to the local wine merchant, Torrelli, for a small fee. Danny's friends swipe and then destroy the only written record of Danny's unwise transaction from an outraged Torrelli, and then reason that the only way to bring Danny down from his epic bender is to host an epic party. So devoted are they to the idea, they even stoop to work for a day to make enough money to buy food and wine. They invite everyone in town for what promises to be the biggest event in Tortilla Flat's history. I won't spoil the ending for anyone who wishes to read this book, but I will end with some glorious lines describing the party:

Just as this party knew no comparison, so Danny defied emulation as a celebrant. . .The night passed quickly, and still Danny roared through the party. . .Danny, say the people of Tortilla Flat, had been rapidly changing his form. He had grown huge and terrible. . .There he stood, in the room of his own house. He held the pine table-leg in his right hand. . .Danny challenged the world.

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