What is a paisano? He is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods. His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or two years. He speaks English with a paisano accent and Spanish with a paisano accent. When questioned concerning his race, he indignantly claims pure Spanish blood and rolls up his sleeve to show that the soft inside of his arm is nearly white. His color, like that of a well-browned meerschaum pipe, he ascribes to sunburn. He is a paisano, and he lives in that uphill district above the town of Monterey called Tortilla Flat, although it isn’t a flat at all. – from Tortilla Flat, page 2
Danny, the hero of John Steinbeck’s novella Tortilla Flat, is a paisano. When he inherits two small houses in Tortilla Flat, his friends soon discover that living beneath a roof is preferable to sleeping in the woods. Pilon, Pablo, Pirate and his pack of friendly dogs, Joe Portagee, and Jesus Maria soon move in with Danny. Together, they commit petty theft, drink far too much cheap wine, and engage in a number of sexual liaisons with the town women. They also develop strong friendships with each other – friendships based on a common philosophy that material goods are not what create happiness, and freedom comes in choosing to live unencumbered by traditional social mores. The paisanos are loyal to their comrades over all else.
Based loosely on the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable, Steinbeck’s classic novel explores the growing friendships of the paisanos and their skewed view of morality. They often steal from their neighbors, yet unselfishly assist those in need; they are quick to come to the rescue of the local women, but do not deny themselves sexual gratification. They share stories to help teach each other the lessons of life. Steinbeck clearly loves this scrappy band of brothers and with humor and sensitivity he creates memorable and likable characters. At times, Tortilla Flat feels like a collection of short stories or parables.
Steinbeck sets Tortilla Flat during the Depression era in a town just outside of Monterey, California and with his signature style captures the flavor of that time period and geographic area.
It will not surprise anyone that I thoroughly enjoyed Tortilla Flat. I have long come to recognize Steinbeck as an astute writer who crafts his characters with detail and empathy. Although this novella has a different feel and style from his better known novels such as East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath, it is of the same high quality. In less than 200 pages, Steinbeck succeeds in drawing the reader into the world of the paisano and leaves her wanting for more.