Saturday, April 24, 2010

'Tortilla Flat' is a fun, bumpy ride- anything but flat

Tortilla Flat Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Part way through Tortilla Flat, I commented to a friend that I found it odd that Steinbeck was writing about a group of homeless veterans and he never directly addresses either their war experience or the difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Now that I've finished it, (don't worry, this is not a spoiler) I think I was wrong. Maybe when it was first published in 1935 people didn't directly address such things anyway. These are WWI vets. "Shell Shocked" was a new concept and not necessarily a commonly applied one- especially to poor Mexican-Americans in Northern California. Steinbeck DOES wrap up Tortilla Flat sentimentally. He brings it full circle and reveals both the importance to his community of and the monumental difficulties and struggles of his central character, Danny.

In between, Steinbeck has a whole lot of fun. At times reading Tortilla Flat is like watching episodes of The Little Rascals, only they're young men instead of little kids.

Like Steinbeck does in other books, like the Grapes of Wrath, he opens a community to us that may be completely foreign to us, both culturally and socio-economically, without making any kind of moral judgement on his character's way of life. Because he's able to do this objectively and yet brings us into their lives, as equals, confidants, and cohorts, we can enjoy them and come to care for them, in spite of the fact that we'd probably never make the same kinds of choices they do.

The "Paisanos" (country people, "red-necks") of Monterey's barrio neighborhood, Tortilla Flat are simultaneously full of honor and mischief, dignity, innocence, and plenty of sin.

Maybe guys will be better able to appreciate the adolescent camaraderie shared by the occupants of Danny's house, but if women give it a chance and consider how they form a surrogate family for each other, I think that they may gain an insight into the fraternal nature of men of college/military age and the difficult transition from that "coming of age" time and the actual, real responsible adulthood that usually comes after.

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