Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck (1 of 2)

Published in 1935, Tortilla Flat was Steinbeck’s first major critical success. And if you mistakenly believe that Tortilla Flat is a Medieval romance, you are easily forgiven — what with its thees and thous and thys, with its lovemaking and chivalry, its high adventure and quest for treasures, and its mystical, fog-shrouded settings.

No, Tortilla Flat is a 190-proof paean to wine.

Unlike Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where wine is a subtle fruity accent in an otherwise dark, creepy atmosphere, the pages of Tortilla Flat are veritably soaked in the stuff. Now, you had better be damn well impressed to learn that there are 148 direct references to wine in Tortilla Flat. I counted them. 148! In a book of only 207 pages. And this is a conservative estimate! As I learned while loafing about Tortilla Flat, there are many ways to refer to wine without actually referring to it. 

Interestingly, of the 17 chapters only two are free from the influence of wine. But this is entirely consistent with good breeding, as one chapter deals with the death of a pale sickly baby boy, and the other with a band of paisanos rushing to the aid of a lady in distress — a one Teresina, a mother of eight who mysteriously becomes pregnant with her ninth. 

Of course, the lesson here is obvious: before the great mysteries of love and death, one had better have a clear head.

7 Responses to Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck (1 of 2)

  1. tuulenhaiven says:

    This sounds like a good place for me to start with Steinbeck – a fog-shrouded setting and wine. Perfect.

  2. Tortilla is a tasty little romp, for sure. And a quick treat, too. Judging by your avatar, you’ll enjoy it a lot! Cheers.

  3. anokatony says:

    I read ‘Tortilla Flats’ but didn’t catch all the wine references. Thought it was about migrant workers…

  4. R. T. says:

    I remember reading everything by Steinbeck when I was in high school and college. Now, many years later, I am surprised that many critics and readers consign Steinbeck to “middle brow” status. For me, though, I cling to fond memories of my experiences with Steinbeck, and I am eager to revisit his stories and novels. Your posting provokes me to do just that. Thanks for the provocation.

  5. Richard says:

    I read this novel too long ago to remember much of it, Kevin, but I’m impressed with that figure of 148 references to wine in 207 pages. Would be interesting to compare Fante’s The Brotherhood of the Grape or any Bukowski to see how those two would fare compared to Steinbeck in alcohol allusion prowess. Interesting stat!

  6. [...] beer is the unsung hero of Beowulf and wine the underlying reality of Tortilla Flat, there’s good reason to think every work of art contains a secret. Brown Dog, a novella by [...]

  7. [...] For the above lovely bits of Steinbeckian arcana, I am indebted to Buzzle, and Interpolations. [...]

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