D is for Danny

I’m almost a day late–my first late entry in all the alpha-series!–but, finally, here’s my “D” entry:

D is for Danny – From Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

This week was a tough choice for me character-wise, since two of my absolute favorite books have strong “D” characters. So far my roster of characters for this project is short on females, so I was thinking I’d try a drawing of Daily Alice Drinkwater from John Crowley’s Little, Big. My initial sketch of her wasn’t really promising, though, so I went with Danny from one of my other absolute favorite books, Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck. (He’s just referred to as “Danny” throughout; I don’t believe a last name is ever given.)

There’s very little description in the book of Danny’s physical attributes–only, “Danny was small and dark and intent. At twenty-five his legs were bent to the exact curves of a horse’s sides.” (He’s a recently discharged WWI mule skinner.) With his pose, though, I tried to capture as best I could a bit of his character. While he’s certainly a wine-sotted slacker, he’s also the King Arthur analog in the book (more on that below), so I tried to give him a regal gait and expression.

Tortilla Flat gets a bit of a bad rap these days for its decidedly non-P.C. depiction of its Mexican-American characters, who are–shall we say–not known for their work ethic. Much as with Apu, from The Simpsons, though,  I think the larger point is that the Paisanos in the book–for all their boozing and lounging about–are ultimately portrayed very positively: in the midst of the Depression they stick together, look out for one another, and are ultimately happier and to my mind more honorable folk than the more “upstanding” white folk they likely would be compared to at the time.

(Curiously, I also read some criticism of the way the characters speak in the novel as being “inauthentic.” The book is so obviously a riff on/homage to the King Arthur fables that I’m truly stunned anyone couldn’t figure out that their “inauthentic” language is pretty much cribbed right out of the Thomas Mallory King Arthur stuff.)

The opening two paragraphs of Tortilla Flat are among my favorite introductory paragraphs of any book:

THIS is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and their endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.

In Monterey, that old city on the coast of California,these things are well known, and they are repeated and sometimes elaborated. It is well that this cycle be put down on paper so that in a future time scholars, hearing the legends, may not say as they say of Arthur and of Roland and of Robin Hood “There was no Danny nor any group of Danny’s friends, nor any house. Danny is a nature god and his friends primitive symbols of the wind, the sky, the sun.” This history is designed now and ever to keep the sneers from the lips of sour scholars.

Next week: “E”…

You can find all the AlphaBooks entries to-date at the AlphaBooks tumblr: http://alphabooks.tumblr.com. You can also follow many of the entries as they’re posted in real-time by following the #AlphaBooks hashtag on Twitter on Mondays.


  1. Isaac says:

    It sure has been a long time since I read Tortilla Flat. You’re making me want to re-read it and find the Arthurian strains in it, which I totally missed the first time through.

    And I like the way you’ve gradually introduced that fourth finger… very subtle.

  2. Ben says:

    @Isaac Yeah, I first read it maybe in junior high and I remember noting the weird, long chapter titles (“How Danny’s Friends Stole A Chicken, But…etc., etc. “) and strange dialog, but only when I reread it as an adult did I recognize where all that stuff came from.

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