Monday, January 18, 2010

the last book I read

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck.

It's just after the end of World War I, but before the start of U.S. Prohibition, so more than likely 1919. Danny and his motley band of friends live an idle and carefree existence on the hills above Monterey, wanting nothing more than a few stolen food items, a couple of gallons of rotgut wine and the company of a couple of ladies of easy virtue for complete happiness.

When Danny comes home from the war he discovers that his grandfather has died and that he is now the owner of two houses up on Tortilla Flat. Danny sets about rounding up his friends - Pilon, Pablo, Jose Maria Corcoran, Big Joe Portagee, the Pirate and his various dogs - and moving them into the houses. Almost immediately a mishap with a skinful of wine and a candle results in the burning down of one of them, so everyone ends up in the same house. Cue various crazy adventures, mainly involving petty theft, the avoidance of work, chasing women and many more gallons of wine. Or as Shane MacGowan would have it: "fighting, fucking and drinking. The important things in life". After one final wild house party ends tragically the group dissipates again to return to their previous nomadic lifestyle.

If you've read Of Mice And Men (which I have) or The Grapes Of Wrath (which I haven't, despite rather shamefully owning a copy for about 20 years) you'll be expecting something quite serious, but this earlier novel (it was Steinbeck's first major literary success in 1935) is quite different. With its cast of characters who seem to be a cross between Falstaff and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers it's a much more light-hearted and charming book than you might imagine. As you can tell from the short space of time between this review and the previous one, I zipped through it pretty quickly, admittedly helped by having to fill an hour and a half on a train journey between Bristol and London on Friday night.

My 1971 Penguin Modern Classics edition has a picture on the front which purports to be a section of a painting called The Winedrinker by William Gropper. Take a closer look, though: it's Andy Serkis.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have the same version of the book. But if you google Tortilla Flat, it never comes up. Also, I've googled William Gropper and The Winedrinker and can't find the picture anywhere.

Was interested to see if you could get a print of this, but it doesn't seem so.