Tortilla Flat begins with a preface which gives an outline of what the story will be about: Danny, Dannys friends, and Dannys house in Tortilla Flat, a district on a hill above the town of Monterey, California. From Dannys group of friends “came sweetness and joy, philanthropy, and, in the end, mystic sorrow.?The author compares Danny and his friends to the knights of the Round Table in King Arthurs time, and explains that he will tell the reader how Dannys group came into being, how it flourished and how the group eventually disintegrated.
Tortilla Flat, where Danny and his friends live, is a poor part of town. The men are paisanos, which means they are a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and Caucasian blood. The paisanos have lived in California for well over a hundred years. Danny himself, who claims pure Spanish blood, grew up in Tortilla Flat. When the United States declared war on Germany in World War I in 1917, Danny and his friends Pilon and Big Joe Portagee went to the enlistment station in Monterey. Pilon and Big Joe were assigned to the infantry, while Danny, who said he was a mule skinner, was sent to break mules in Texas. Pilon ended up in Oregon with the infantry, while Big Joe went to jail.
After the war, Danny learns that his grandfather has died and that he has inherited two small houses on Tortilla Flat. At first he is weighed down by the responsibility of ownership. He gets drunk on wine, starts a fight in a poolroom, and breaks some windows in town. He gets sentenced to a month in the city jail. One night a friend named Tito Ralph visits Danny with wine. When that is finished, Tito Ralph leaves to get some more, and Danny goes with him. Later, Danny sleeps among the pines while Tito Ralph goes back and reports Dannys escape. Danny hides all the next day, and in the evening begs some scraps from a restaurant, and steals a lot more food.
In the woods that night, Danny meets Pilon and offers to share his food with him. Pilon agrees to share his brandy with Danny. They build a fire, cook the ham, eat the bread, and drink the brandy.
Danny thinks of the friends he lost in the war. He wonders about his friend Pablo, and Pilon tells him that Pablo stole a goose and is in jail for six months. Danny complains that he does not have a roof above his head, but then suddenly remembers that he is the owner of two houses. This surprising news makes Pilon sad. He says that now Danny is a man of property, he will forget his friends. Danny denies this, and says that he will share his house with Pilon.
The preface makes it clear that the story will resemble at least in some respects the Arthurian legend of King Arthur, who gathered knights at his Round Table in Camelot. The knights were dedicated to maintaining order in their society, fighting for right against lawlessness. In Tortilla Flat, Dannys house serves as the equivalent of the Round Table, although detailed comparisons between Tortilla Flat and the King Arthur legends is not possible. Because the characters in Tortilla Flat are not exactly knights but indulge in all kinds of petty lawlessness themselves, the tone of the novel is consistently comic and ironic, and the novel as a whole is classified as a mock epic. A mock epic burlesques the epic form by taking trivial subjects and treating them in a grandiose manner. The mock epic quality of Tortilla Flat can easily be seen in the chapter headings. Chapter I, for example, is headed, “How Danny, home from the wars, found himself an heir, and how he swore to protect the helpless.?The elevated, dignified tone is too great for its humble subject.
Chapter I shows Danny starting to assembles his “knights,?as he offers to share his house with Pilon. This chapter sets out the theme of friendship that will dominate the novel, as Danny swears to Pilon that “what I have is thine. While I have a house, thou hast a house.?This chapter also reveals the values the friends will share. They do not care to accumulate the things that society values, such as material possessions, because that would involve a loss of their freedom. Dannys first thought when he inherits the houses, for example, is to be weighed down with the responsibilities of a man of property-responsibilities that he does not really want.