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26th April
2010
written by Steph

A year ago, Marie Arana wrote a piece for The Washington Post in which she argued that the Nobel Prize was merely a political instrument that was less interested in honoring quality literature and thus, it was time to get rid of it. She cited many of the authors that the prize has overlooked in favor of authors she personally considered to be far lesser writers.  One such example given was John Steinbeck, whom she described as being “merely average”. No, you read that right.  By Arana’s estimation Steinbeck was “merely average”. Color me stunned.  I think there are a lot of ways in which once could describe Steinbeck, but “merely average” is not necessarily the choice I would make. I’ve by no means read his entire back catalog, but I remember being completely enthralled by East of Eden during a summer in highschool, and if Of Mice and Men isn’t the saddest thing I’ve ever read, then I don’t know what is.  True story: My dad gave the book to my brother and asked him to read it, when my brother was maybe 12 or 13.  My brother wasn’t really a reader, but the length of the book was such that even a non-reader like himself wouldn’t feel all that intimidated.  A few hours later he came out of his room and said he had finished it, but neither my dad nor I believed him since he was so calm and collected.  My dad told him to go back and really finish it… and bang!  20 minutes later, Ty came out bawling, totally distraught.  That’s when we knew he had finished it.  Honestly, Of Mice and Men is one of those books that can be your trusted litmus test to see if someone has working human parts.  If you can read it and not be moved to the sharpest pinnacles of grief, well… you scare me. But, this post is not about Of Mice and Men (though I’m sure its time will come… when I can brace myself for the emotional devastation that will accompany a re-read).  Rather, it’s about Tortilla Flat (imagine that!), another one of Steinbeck’s short novels. We have a copy of Steinbeck’s collected short novels, and Tortilla Flat happens to be the first one in the collection, so that’s how I happened to pick it. Tortilla Flat relates the adventures (and misadventures) of Danny and his friends.  Tortilla Flat refers to the area (more like a barrio) that they call home; it is filled with blue-collar Mexican descendents (called paisanos) who live hard scrabble lives.  Danny and his friends are layabouts who get into their fair share of trouble as they spend most of their time drinking mass quantities of cheap wine, only to concoct harebrained schemes so that they can procure more wine. I very much felt that Tortilla Flat follows the conventions of a picaresque work, and was reminded greatly of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as I read it. According to the unimpeachable source that is Wikipedia, Steinbeck wanted Danny and his friends to be a parallel of sorts to the knights of King Arthur, which I think makes sense, because I know Steinbeck had a fascination of sorts with those stories.  Regardless, the primary driving force to the novel is that Danny and his pals get into a variety of scraps that are loosely incumbent on those previous and have but a small bearing on those that come.  Towards the end, there is a more extended narrative related to Danny’s downfall, but up until that point, it feels more like the stories are a pastiche that are meant to illustrate a specific place and people (Tortilla Flat and the paisanos) as opposed to presenting a single, sweeping narrative.  It felt like the stories themselves were not really the important thing here, insomuch as the bigger picture they were illustrating, each one just a tiny jigsaw puzzle piece. As you know, I have mixed feelings about these types of stories.  I loved Twain’s Huck Finn, but was not such a fan of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.  For me, Tortilla Flat fell somewhere between the two.  I found it easy enough to read and some of the stories were fun, but I kept wondering what the bigger picture was that Steinbeck was getting at.  I suppose his only aims may have been in depicting a certain slice of California life and culture, as well as producing a novel of friendship and camaraderie.  Both of these are worthy goals, but in many ways the novel felt quite trivial to me. It felt like a piece of juvenilia, which is perhaps fair, since it is one of Steinbeck’s earlier works.  It is accessible in the way that Steinbeck’s great works are, but I did feel like it was less penetrating in its insights and more limited in its appeal.  Save for the drinking and philandering, it feels like a children’s story in its construction. So, not one of Steinbeck’s best works, I guess, but every author has his lesser work, right (even if it’s only a matter of subjective opinion!)?  I don't think this is a book to read unless you're a Steinbeck completist, but I also don't think this makes him "merely average" either.  I think few books could stand up to Steinbeck’s “big ticket” reads, including some of his back catalog.  I’m still interested in reading through his short novels, but just prepare to batten down the hatches when the time comes for Of Mice and Men. Rating: 3 out of 5

17 Comments

  1. 04/26/2010

    I read East of Eden about a month ago, and was just blown away by it. I had a really hard time writing a review, because it was just so wonderful that I felt like I couldn’t do it justice. Since reading it, I have gone out of my way to collect as many of his books as I can grab hold of and do really want to read this one as well. When I do, I will keep your comments in mind, as well as the fact that this is one of his earlier works. I am probably going to be reading The Grapes of Wrath next though, so it might take me some time to get to this one. Glad to know he’s one of your favorites!

  2. 04/26/2010

    I have found that I like Steinbeck’s longer works better than his shorter ones. I haven’t read Tortilla Flat, but for example The Red Pony really just didn’t work for me. On the other hand, East of Eden was beautiful and Grapes of Wrath is one of the best books I’ve ever read. And honestly, I can’t remember if we read Of Mice and Men in school. I know we watched the movie (yeah, bad school) but i don’t think we read the book. I really need to.

  3. 04/26/2010

    I have read all of Steinbeck’s work (had to for a college course I took) and this would not be one of my favorites. That being said I would never rate Steinbeck as “average”. You are so right about Of Mice and Men. It is an emotionally wrenching story that I dread rereading but know I need to someday.

  4. 04/26/2010

    Of Mice and Men is on my list, so I guess I have some emotional devastation in my future.

  5. 04/26/2010

    I read Grapes of Wrath within the past few years, and am one of the curmudgeons who didn’t love it. I didn’t think the alternating chapters meshed well, though the story of the Joads was powerful. Even so, I wouldn’t call Steinbeck average.

    I remember speaking with my younger sister after she’d just finished reading “Of Mice and Men.”

    “I’ll never be happy again,” she moaned.

    It _is_ a powerful book. But I think I’ll give Tortilla Flats a miss.

  6. 04/26/2010

    @ zibilee: I could see how EoE would be hard to write a review for because it is so sweeping in its scale. I definitely want to re-read it at some point – maybe this summer? I haven’t read Grapes of Wrath, I’m not entirely sure why, but there you have it. I will probably read it at some point, and yet I don’t feel that I need to rush out and do so.
     
    @ Amanda: I think Tony is like you – he claims that he has read all of Steinbeck’s short works, and didn’t think much of most of them (he said The Red Pony was pretty crummy). But Of Mice and Men is brilliant, and it really doesn’t matter to me if the rest of Steinbeck’s short fiction is crap, because it was SO. GOOD.
     
    @ Kathleen: I’d love to know what your favorite Steinbeck is! And glad to hear you know what I mean about OM&M!
     
    @ charley: Yes, you really do. Good luck!
     
    @ Girl Detective: I haven’t read GoW, so I can’t say whether I would love it or not. Have you read East of Eden? Because it’s fabulous. But you know, clearly Tortilla Flat proves that Steinbeck had some flops…

  7. mee
    04/26/2010

    I’ve been wanting to read Of Mice and Man since you mentioned to me a while ago. But I also want to read East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath. Which one first? Such a dilemma!

  8. 04/27/2010

    @ mee: I haven’t read GoW so I can’t offer a fully informed opinion here, but I will say that I think you’ll love EoE. It’s so good! I don’t think I know anyone who’s read it and not liked it.

  9. 04/28/2010

    Hi Steph, I have to say that my favorite Steinbeck novel is East of Eden but I also love his early work just because it is so cool to read the stuff where he was trying to “work it out” and developing his craft. One of these earlier works was Pastures of Heaven. You can see some glimpses of his later greatness here. I hope you will enjoy more Steinbeck in the future!

  10. 04/28/2010

    Amazing comment from that journalist. Wow. I’ve enjoyed and been blown away by East of Eden. Still trying to find time for me. Looking forward to The Grapes of Wrath sooner rather than later. Sounds like this is one for later down the list, after I get to Of Mice and Men too.

  11. 04/29/2010

    @ Kathleen: Thanks for the insight into Steinbeck’s past writing. I think it is very cool when you’re able to chart an author’s progression. Never heard of Pastures of Heaven, but I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.
     
    @ Rebecca: I know! I was shocked when I read that article! I really can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Of Mice and Men – I am sure you will love it.

  12. 04/29/2010

    I’ve yet to read any Steinbeck, but I’ve been meaning to change that. You’ve just made me decide that Of Mice and Men will be my introduction to his work.

  13. Pauly Kuehn
    04/30/2010

    The movie Grapes of Wrath is worth a watch. I think the message gets across, may or may not equal the book, but it’s a strong story on it’s own merits,with lots of fine old actors doing their best.

  14. 04/30/2010

    I have read East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and Cannery Row this year. I have enjoyed all of them. While East of Eden takes time developing the story that is parallel to Gensis, Steinbeck intersperses the plot with his social commentary on good and evil. Of Mice and Men is the exact opposite in terms of form: it’s trimmed down to the bone. He tells you a story, like an allegory, and you have to take it as is. I wonder if Cannery Row is similar to Tortilla Flat in terms of giving snippets of lives that focus more on a locale and the ways of life rather than a person.

  15. 05/02/2010

    Steph, I’ve not read Tortilla Flat. My favourite Steinbeck is Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday. Both are short novellas and can be read in a couple of hours.

  16. 05/03/2010

    I am such a huge lover of Steinbeck that I cannot read anything he has written critically at all. That said, I agree with you that Tortilla Flat is one of his lesser books.

  17. 05/03/2010

    @ Nicola: I remember trying to read Cannery Row in highschool (?) and didn’t make it very far into it, but I’d like to try it again. And I didn’t even know it had a sequel; I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Sweet Tuesday! Thanks for the suggestions!
     
    @ Nishita: I completely understand about not being able to read certain books objectively at all… for me Steinbeck is not quite in that league, but just see my post on The Catcher in the Rye from earlier this year, and you’ll see I know just what you mean!

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