Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck
I have only ever been the biggest Steinbeck nerd and fanboy; Travels With Charley is still my favorite nonfiction work and Cannery Row was the first time I realized I could enjoy a novel that didn’t have wizards, journeys to the center of the earth, or medieval anthropomorphic animals who enjoyed borderline pornographically-described feasts at least twice per book. That said, Tortilla Flat took me until my early 20’s to appreciate, but I am a firm believer that we find the book when we are ready for the book; this I learned from the Cool Aunt who gave me a selection of Steinbeck’s work, a gorgeous copy of Animal Farm fully illustrated by Ralph Steadman and the Grossology CD-ROM for Christmas when I was like eight. I think we can agree: a Diverse and Comprehensive Curriculum for the Studious Young Man.
Tortilla Flat isn’t like other Steinbecks in a lot of ways (and is very like them in others), but the primary distinctions are that it’s 1). A then-modern retelling of Arthurian myth, which the descriptive language and dialogue reflect with thees and thous aplenty, and 2.) It is fucking hilarious.
It’s not a complicated story: Danny, our Arthur, returns home to Tortilla Flat, California from The War (don’t worry about which one; war never changes) to find that he has inherited two shoebox houses from the Viejo, and gradually recruits his delinquent pals and also a pirate to be his renters. SHENANIGANS ENSUE, with a side order of MONKEYSHINES and, in direct defiance of presidential decree, a soupçon of MALARKY, all of which is treated with the most deadly seriousness that is apparently my kryptonite. Look I could go into particulars–“How is Danny supposed to cope with the crushing social pressure of his sudden elevation to the status of a man with two whole shitty, ramshackle houses?”–but there’s really no way to relay just quite how and why this tragedy wrapped in a comedy garnished with several holy mysteries and crimes and also a miracle of beans is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. It’s like 150 pages and they fly, you can read it in a stretchy afternoon and I guarantee it’ll be worth it.
And now, the bad news. Steinbeck was a socialist and flamingly liberal by the standards of his day, like “J. Edgar Hoover ordered the IRS to audit him every year for the rest of his life out of spite” liberal, and was generally and correctly lauded for his compassion for and championing of the poor and the politically oppressed and sticking it to The Man, specifically banks, big business and exploitative employers. Unfortunately not all of his views have aged super well and Tortilla Flat is arguably the prime example, because 80% of the characterization relies on “LOL Mexicans are lazy and/or criminals!”, and in the Year of Some of Our Lord 2021 it is extremely difficult to tell whether that’s a sincere embracing of those tropes or a brilliant subversion of them; I’m personally inclined to believe the latter but then I’m not square in the crosshairs of the weapon that shoots those jokes, so it’s not mine to say. The reader is encouraged to decide for themselves, he said, deftly dodging responsibility yet again. You’ll never take me alive, coppers.
Score: 9/10 Pairs of Pants Bartered So Frequently They Form Their Own Economy
The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes
Oh look! It’s something I manage to be a bigger nerd about than Steinbeck! And they said it couldn’t be done.
The Sandman, alongside Watchmen, is what proved to the world that comics could be legitimate art and legitimate literature, capable of and deserving to stand alongside any novel, painting, film or like, super-handsome sandwich. Neil Gaiman’s writing career began as all the greats do: a pseudonymous biography of Duran Duran, and his comics career had a similarly traditional, classical start: finding an issue of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing on a chair in a subway station, loving it, becoming friends with Alan Moore and taking over Miracleman for him when Moore’s run on the title ended. Basic stuff! We’ve all been there! We all know this classic way. And after a successful run on that and a few other, smaller titles, DC told him he could have his own ongoing series under their Vertigo imprint, and he decided he wanted to revive a classic-but-defunct crime title, Sandman Mystery Theatre, except not have it involve any of the characters, plots or themes, and instead of a vigilante who used a sleep-powder gun to conk criminals out, it would be about the King of Dreams and his siblings, who are not gods, and how his death came to him. Say one thing for Neil Gaiman: say he starts as he means to go on, and one of the reasons for the series’ enduring success is that he was able to go on as he started because he somehow got DC to agree to a contract stipulating that the series could only continue with him at the helm as writer and that he could leave at any time, for any reason. So he was able to tell the story he wanted, in the way he wanted, and I will always be grateful.
One day, a rich man realized that his wealth brought him no happiness and, like all lunatics with more money than sense or humanity, decided that what he needed to be his best self was to defy Death and achieve immortality and so, because the kinds of men who earn Croesian wealth aren’t great with metaphors, he founds an esoteric society, builds a magic circle and a prison of glass in his basement to literally capture and bind Death itself. But what he gets is Death’s little brother: Dream, Morpheus, Oneiros, Kai’ckul, the King of Dreams himself. As a result, everything and everyone are royally goozled. People who are asleep when Dream is captured stay asleep. For seventy years. And people who are awake can’t have real dreams, can’t rest properly, because they’ve lost the ability to enter the Dreaming, which is Morpheus’ kingdom and also kind of an extension of him and also he’s kind of an expression of it? He brings us the dreams that come from the Dreaming and we use those to create the Dreaming, that he’s a manifestation of? It’s that kinda book. Once free, Dream sets about restoring his kingdom, which has fallen into ruin in his absence, and his servants, who have been negligent in their duties to the Dreaming and to the dreamers, and thereby hangs a tale.
The Sandman is my favorite comic, but this first volume actually isn’t a super-representative example of it, it’s much more emphatically a horror story, because of what happens to Dream, what happens to all of the sleepers that he’s prevented from shepherding to his kingdom, and most of all because of what he does to the rich old magician when he’s finally freed. Subsequent volumes are much more fantastic, thoughtful, poetic and frequently sad: Dream helps John Constantine rescue a woman who has found her own way to dream and helps the Swamp Thing find the man who killed his father; he strikes a deal with William Shakespeare to help bring the Great Stories into a new age; he meets a friend on the same day in the same pub every century for a millennium; and he inherits the keys to an empty Hell when Lucifer declares it closed for business. It’s all the mythopunk goodness that Gaiman would focus and strip down for American Gods but with time, time to worldbuild, time to develop characters, time for the reader to realize that all of its stories are leading to one conclusion, as all of ours do.
I can’t promise it’ll mean as much to you as it means to me, but I guarantee The Sandman is unlike anything you’ve ever read, though somehow it’ll feel like seeing an old friend again, one you last saw with sleeping eyes.
Score: 10/10 Chats With Death, Sitting On A Park Bench, Feeding The Birds
I’ve been living next to you my friend, but what kind of friend are you