I spent the first half of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat wondering whether or not the unusual story was an affront to Mexican migrant workers. Of course, the classification of “workers” in this story is a stretch as Danny, Pablo, Jesus Maria, Pilon, Big Joe, and the rest of the inhabitants of the shanty town on the hillside of Monterey rarely if ever did an honest day’s work. More often the lazy day was spent wondering how to acquire — usually less than honestly — worldly possessions to trade at the local watering hole for a bottle of wine.
In a world of poverty in a town with no electricity where a vacuum cleaner with no motor is a prized and enviable possession, a bottle of wine is currency. With it one buys food, companionship, solace, and women. And, at least while the bottle isn’t completely empty, forgiveness, loyalty, and justice.
Danny and his gang have a unique sense of propriety and logic, an innocence acquired through a lifetime of transient living. The death of his grandfather bestows upon Danny the unwanted responsibility of home ownership within the Flat, and magnanimously he shares his newfound wealth with his friends, stirring within them their own senses of purpose and worth. It goes uphill and downhill from there.
Having rediscovered Steinbeck, I may revisit some of his other classics soon.