Some time ago, in a fit of Steinbeck-related enthusiasm, I stumbled upon two of his shorter works in a used book sale. I loved The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, so I thought, why not? They’re cheap! I’ll read them right away! Three years later they were two of the oldest books on my physical TBR pile. Every time I looked at them, my eyes — and urge to read — went elsewhere. And since I really wanted to cull my stacks this year, I decided it was time to face up to these two slim little books.
I read both Tortilla Flat and The Pearl over the long Labor Day weekend. Am I glad? Well, no, not really. Sure, I crossed a couple of books off my TBR list. And I made room on my shelves, although truth be told these books are so small the impact is hardly noticeable. But you see, I didn’t particularly enjoy either of them, and I hate when reading becomes a chore. It’s difficult even to muster the energy to write proper reviews.
Needless to say I’m happy to have moved on to some better reading!
Tortilla Flat is an impoverished area near Monterey, California, inhabited by ne’er-do-wells described on the back cover of my edition as “a colorful gang whose revels recall the exploits of King Arthur’s knights … gutsy denizens … curiously childlike natives.” The group’s leader is Danny, a man whose social status is instantly raised when he inherits his family property. The rest of the gang moves in, expressing intent to pay rent but never actually doing so. The group increases in size, and each day their sole aim is to find a way to get one or more gallons of wine and spend the evenings making it disappear. They are very loyal to one another, but swindle other people and treat women poorly.
I read just over half of this book’s 207 pages, but found the group’s escapades repetitive and boring and was unable — unwilling — to continue.
Kino makes his living searching for pearls in the sea. He is a poor laborer, with a wife and new baby to care for. One day he finds a huge pearl, and begins imagining how it will change their lives. He and Juana will be able to have a proper wedding. His son, Coyotito, will be baptised and go to school. They will join a new social class.
The poor villagers envy Kino’s new status, and Kino becomes protective and suspicious. But when he has the pearl appraised, he finds it may not be as valuable as he hoped. He decides to travel to the city with his family, and have the pearl appraised there. Fueled by greed, Kino is willing to do just about anything to keep the pearl. And that’s when his life begins to unravel.
This book was vaguely familiar; I think I may have read it in school. Steinbeck does a fine job showing how greed can make someone irrational. The style and tone were probably spot on when this was first published in 1945. For contemporary readers, the theme is a familiar one, and doesn’t have the same impact.