Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck. New York: Covici, Friede. $2.50.
Not since the days of W. W. Jacobs, making his disarming characters out of scoundrels, has there been a book quite like this one. Both Jacobs and Steinbeck must have worked on the assumption that most of us, having a slice or two of Caspar Milquetoast in our systems or a streak that calls for out and out anarchy, are likely to revel in the antics of anyone getting away with what he shouldn’t. The Paisanos of Tortilla Flat get away with agreat deal in their tireless efforts to supply their gullets with red wine. They are a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods. A sunny-eyed, unmoral lot, with invisible means of support, their paganism is chiefly expressed in their disreputable ways and means of acquiring wine.
The incidents that make up the hook are based on this driving force and revolve around Danny and friends, who live in Danny’s house, drinking enough wine to tell their stories, chase their women, and beat the daylights out of each other when the spirit moves them. Despite their free and easy lives these knights from under the round table have a sense of philanthropy and will steal any day to help a friend in need. Mr. Steinbeck knows the humorous side of his Paisanos, and if he has emphasized their eccentricities to the point of burlesquing them, he can be excused on the grounds that he rarely fails to be amusing. When he isn’t amusing it is either because he is trying too hard to eulogize a philosophy of life that is as dust-laden as your copy of the “Rubaiyat,” or because he lets his nature worship display itself too much. Mr. Steinbeck’s pantheism, much more prominent in his other books than in this one, often confuses the effect of his otherwise fine narrative manner.
Jerre Mangione is a member of the staff of a publishing company and has written for The London Spectator, The Literary Digest and The New York Sun.
This article originally ran in the July 17, 1935, issue of the magazine.