Tortilla Flat - John Steinbeck, John McDonough
Although it was initially rejected for publication on a number of occasions, this work – a short story cycle - was Steinbeck’s first real critical and commercial success,. He wrote it during 1933 and early 1934, when he was heavily involved in caring for his elderly parents, who were both were very ill. Steinbeck was inspired to write the book by a high school teacher friend, who was partly of Mexican descent. She had been studying the paisanos, poor people of mixed Mexican, Native American and Caucasian ancestry, who lived in a shantytown in the hills above Monterey. Steinbeck's friend told him a number of stories from that community, which was referred to as Tortilla Flat.

One of Steinbeck’s abiding literary passions was Thomas Malory’s [b:Le Morte d'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table|672875|Le Morte d'Arthur King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table|Thomas Malory||1361856]. He aimed to recreate the spirit of the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table in linked stories about Danny and his friends Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, the Pirate and Big Joe Portagee. Living together in a house inherited by Danny, the friends develop a strong moral code which governs their relationship with each other. This code does not involve sobriety or other indicia of bourgeois respectability, such as respect for private property. While stealing from a friend is punished severely, stealing from those outside the group is not only accepted, it’s encouraged.

There is a lot to like about this work. The satirical, mock-heroic tone is clever, the characters of Danny and his friends are well-realised and sympathetically drawn, there's plenty of humour and Steinbeck’s prose is wonderful. On the other hand, to a modern reader the depiction of the paisanos as heavy drinking, thieving no-hopers – albeit with a strong code of friendship and mutual support – is disconcerting. And the sexual politics of the characters is questionable to say the least.

This is not my favourite Steinbeck. Although I appreciate Steinbeck’s achievement in recreating a version of the myth of the Knights of the Round Table and I love the characters and the writing, the work feels dated, which cannot be said of Steinbeck’s major novels. I listened to an audiobook which was very well narrated by John McDonough. It gets 3-1/2 stars, because anything Steinbeck wrote is worth reading.