Friday, June 29, 2012

The Tortilla Curtain

The Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle
Penguin Group, copyright 1995
Trade Paperback, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780140238280

Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexican illegals Cándido and América Rincón desperately cling to their vision of the American Dream as they fight off starvation in a makeshift camp deep in the ravine. And from the moment a freak accident brings Cándido and Delaney into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.

My Thoughts:
In The Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle the lives of Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher are juxtaposed with those of Cándido and América Rincón. Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, a nature writer and real estate agent, are living the American dream ensconced in a hilltop community above Topanga Canyon. Cándido and América Rincón are illegal immigrants from Mexico who are barely scraping out an existence while living/camping in the canyon. At the beginning of the novel Cándido is accidentally hit and injured when he crosses the busy canyon road in front of Delaney's car. After this point the story switches back and forth between the two couples, following their starkly contrasting lives as they all search for their version of the American dream. 
The theme of sovereignty is explored and  by the prevalence of the various walls, gates, fences.  The Tortilla Curtain does not take a "side." It firmly encourages understanding both sides of an issue by looking at the circumstances, dreams, fears, and thoughts of all the characters. Boyle tackles our social consciousness in relationship to illegal immigrants, but along the way he also highlights other issues, including environmental causes, urban sprawl, introduced species, materialism, crime, and unemployment, to name a few. The Tortilla Curtain could actually be considered a very tragic novel, but for the added elements of comedy and satire.

From what I've read, Boyle never intended  The Tortilla Curtain to be a treatise on illegal immigration. Above all, even though it handles some very weighty, heated issues that continue to be relevant even years after its publication, this is a fictional novel. I appreciated Boyle's masterful writing and his carefully crafted characters.
Very Highly Recommended - but it can also be considered controversial.


Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces--the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye--but he wasn't very successful.  This wasn't a statistic in an actuarial table tucked away in a drawer somewhere, this wasn't random and impersonal.  It had happened to him, Delaney Mossbacher, of 32 Piñon Drive, Arroyo Blanco Estates, a liberal humanist with an unblemished driving record and a freshly waxed Japanese car with personalized plates, and it shook him to the core.  Everywhere he turned he saw those red-flecked eyes, the rictus of the mouth, the rotten teeth and incongruous shock of gray in the heavy black brush of the mustache--they infested his dreams, cut through his waking hours like a window on another reality.  He saw his victim in a book of stamps at the post office, reflected in the blameless glass panels of the gently closing twin doors at Jordan's elementary school, staring up at him from his omelette aux fine herbes at Emilio's in the shank of the evening.

        The whole thing had happened so quickly.  One minute he was winding his way up the canyon with a backseat full of newspapers, mayonnaise jars and Diet Coke cans for the recycler, thinking nothing, absolutely nothing, and the next thing he knew the car was skewed across the shoulder in a dissipating fan of dust.  The man must have been crouching in the bushes like some feral thing, like a stray dog or bird-mauling cat, and at the last possible moment he'd flung himself across the road in a mad suicidal scramble.  There was the astonished look, a flash of mustache, the collapsing mouth flung open in a mute cry, and then the brake, the impact, the marimba rattle of the stones beneath the car, and finally, the dust.  The car had stalled, the air conditioner blowing full, the voice on the radio nattering on about import quotas and American jobs.  The man was gone.  Delaney opened his eyes and unclenched his teeth.  The accident was over, already a moment in history.

        To his shame, Delaney's first thought was for the car (was it marred, scratched, dented?), and then for his insurance rates (what was this going to do to his good-driver discount?), and finally, belatedly, for the victim.  Who was he?  Where had he gone?  Was he all right?  Was he hurt?  Bleeding?  Dying?  Delaney's hands trembled on the wheel.  He reached mechanically for the key and choked off the radio.  It was then, still strapped in and rushing with adrenaline, that the reality of it began to hit him: he'd injured, possibly killed, another human being.  It wasn't his fault, god knew--the man was obviously insane, demented, suicidal, no jury would convict him--but there it was, all the same.  Heart pounding, he slipped out from under the seat belt, eased open the door and stepped tentatively out onto the parched strip of naked stone and litter that constituted the shoulder of the road.  opening

He might have gone on speculating for the rest of the afternoon, the vanishing victim a case for Unsolved Mysteries or the Home Video Network, if he hadn't become aware of the faintest murmur from the clump of vegetation to his immediate right.  But it was more than a murmur--it was a deep aching guttural moan that made something catch in his throat, an expression of the most primitive and elemental experience we know: pain.  pg. 7

He gave it one more try: "You know--help.  Can I help you?"
        And then the man grinned, or tried to.  A film of blood clung to the jagged teeth and he licked it away with a flick of his tongue.  "Monee?" he whispered, and he rubbed the fingers of his free hand together.
        "Money," Delaney repeated, "okay, yes, money," and he reached for his wallet as the sun drilled the canyon and the cars sifted by and a vulture, high overhead, rode the hot air rising from below. pg. 9

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