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The Tortilla Curtain ()

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It's not that this book is awful, at worst it's mediocre.  What's really disappointing is how derivative and hackneyed it all is.  Boyle takes equal parts Grapes of Wrath, Bonfire of the Vanities, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Grand Canyon, mixes them together and pours out a batch of completely predictable, politically correct pabulum.

Delaney Mossbacher is contemptible yuppie scum.  He lives in a gated development, Arroyo Blanco Estates, in Southern California's Topanga Canyon with his equally vile wife and her rotten son.  Delaney is a nature writer in the mode of Annie Dilliard (see Orrin's review).  He considers himself to hold all the "proper" (i.e., "liberal humanist") views on social issues, but these views are put to the test when he strikes an illegal alien with his Acura.

The immigrant, Candido Rincon, is hiding out in the canyon, teetering on the verge of starvation, with his pregnant young wife, America.  He is pretty badly injured in the accident, but terrified of Immigration authorities, he accepts twenty dollars in cash and stumbles off into the canyon.  At first Delaney is horrified by what has happened, but eventually he convinces himself that the victim was running some kind of scam and that he, Delaney, is the true victim because of the damage to his car.  This begins a slide--featuring stolen cars, house pets eaten by coyotes, vandalism, wildfires, and so on--which eventually turns Delaney into a leaden parody of a gun toting right wing extremist.  Meanwhile, the Rincons have visited upon them a series of near Biblical plagues--rape, fire, blindness, near slavery, flood, slaughter of the first born, and so on; at one point Boyle even compares them to Job, just in case we've missed the point.

Boiled down to its essentials, the novel portrays the fabulous comfort of the Mossbachers and their neighbors, while poking fun at their anxieties.  They are contrasted with the achingly noble Rincons and the myriad degradations they suffer while searching for a better life in America.  The ultimate irony, of course, is that the lifestyle enjoyed by the Mossbachers and their ilk is made possible by the labor of folks like the Rincons.  Here again, Boyle, apparently believing that his point may be too subtle for us, uses the final scene of the novel to hammer it home.

There are two problems with Boyle's approach, one structural, the other ideological.  Structurally, satire with it's dependence on exaggeration and caricature requires one of two things; either that the author be sympathetic to all of his characters or to none.  If the author feels at least some affection for all of his targets then his essentially unfair portrayal of them comes with a wink and a nod, letting us know that the satire is merely a means to and end.  If he genuinely loathes them all and attacks them with equal ferocity, there is at least some kind of cosmic justice at work.  The one thing that the author can not do, but which Boyle does do here, is to establish a dichotomy where some characters are satirized viciously, while others are nearly canonized.  This imbalance leads to what must surely be an unintended consequence, since the "bad" people can't really be that bad and the "good" people can't really be that good, the reader ends up feeling empathy for the wrong characters.  In this case, Boyle is so harsh towards the Mossbachers and so enamored of the Rincons that the Mossbachers seem like the victims of the piece, victims of the author that is.

The ideological problem with the book lies in Boyle's one sided depiction of the immigration argument.  Personally, I don't have much problem with the basic point that immigrants, legal and otherwise, serve a vital role in our society.  I believe that anyone who wants to come to America should be welcomed and offered the full protection of our labor laws.  The only requirement should be that they work and that they be ineligible for any government benefits until they become citizens.

However, I do understand the view point of those who oppose immigration.  It is undeniably difficult to assimilate these new populations into the broader society and it can cause disruption to existing communities.  Moreover, the presence in the economy of people who are willing to do practically any job must inevitably have the eventual effect of holding down wages generally.  Finally, though Boyle is especially dismissive of this argument, it is troubling that America has lost control of its own borders.  The inability to stem the flow of illegals across the Mexican border is nearly as alarming as our abject failure to stop the traffic of illegal drugs into the country.  Although I believe that the benefits of immigration outweigh them, I'd concede that each of these points is valid.  Boyle simply dismisses them out of hand.

Just as bad as his ham-handed presentation of this complex issue is his complete misunderstanding of the immigrant experience.  It is of course true that immigrants have a hard time in their new countries.  This has always been the case.  Four hundred years ago, white settlers were frequently slaughtered by Indians.  No matter how hard they have it, today's immigrants don't run much risk of being scalped, do they?  But the fundamental truth of the immigrant experience is not how hard their new lives are; it is that they fled lives that were worse and that their children have lives that are better.  In addition, immigrants should face a difficult challenge; this guarantees that we will be able to skim off the best of each society, those who are undaunted by such challenges.  Were it easy, we would be inundated with the dross too.

Lastly, the final scene of the book (read no farther if you don't want to know what happens), wherein Candido loses his own child but saves the life of Delaney is a metaphorical lie.  The obvious implications are that immigrants lives are destroyed even as the Anglos lives depend upon them.  This is simply untrue.  Immigrants come here, and they do continue to come, because their lives will be materially better, no matter how difficult the adjustment period may be.  And, though as I've said, immigration clearly benefits us all, the image of the immigrant saving the native from drowning overstates the case so badly as to undermine it.  In reality, it is the natives who are saving the immigrants by allowing them the opportunity for a better life.

In the end there is only one message of this book that I can wholeheartedly endorse: regardless of whether you are rich or poor, Southern California is simply a godawful place to live.

Dorothy C. Judd's Review:

Twenty-four years ago, in between revolutions, I spent a week in ElSalvador. Riding around in a bus, albeit not air-conditioned, with other "ugly Americans,"   I saw women cooking over clumps of charcoal in the gutter of the city, children running naked, homes made of cardboard boxes, and women washing clothes in a river.  Later in the day, we would be back at our "luxury" hotel, relaxing with drinks by the pool, jewels on our fingers and in our ears,  ready to change into one of many outfits, and enjoy a sumptuous dinner.  I kept guilt at bay by rationalizing that I had seen equally horrible conditions in my neighboring city of Newark, and I did, after all, make generous contributions to the homeless there.  In short, I kept myself behind the wall, like the walls that surrounded the homes in San Salvador.

In The Tortilla Curtain, Boyle alternates chapters of the "haves" and the "have-nots": yuppie  Californians and illegal Mexicans. Beginning with a freak auto accident, the lives of Delaney Mossbacher and Candido Rincon are intertwined by twists of fate, heightening the contrast of their lives, and ending on a note which would provide a discussion group with fodder for several sessions!

There are any number of points that could provoke discussion in this book: immigration laws and practices, the impact of humans on wildlife and vice versa, the effects of introduced species,  hypocrisy, basic human values. For me, the biggest issue was human values.  If you have lost material possessions, have you truly "lost everything?" And were the illegals  struggling for these same "possessions" or at some point would anyone realize the value of love, integrity, compassion, etc?
 Boyle is a master at descriptive detail; the reader has no problem placing himself in the geographic area he describes. He is also adept at characterization and makes Mossbacher, his wife, Candido, and America Rincon come alive on the page. There are scenes in this book that are truly wrenching.  Be prepared to be disturbed!



Grade: (C-)


T. Boyle Links:


Book-related and General Links:
    -T. Coraghessan Boyle Home Page
    -T.C. Boyle: About the Author and His Works
    -ESSAY: What is this Bee?  Reading Lessons (T. Coraghessan Boyle, LA Weekly)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of RIVEN ROCK  By T. Coraghessan Boyle
    -REVIEW: of MASON & DIXON By Thomas Pynchon (T. Coraghessan Boyle, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PICTURING WILL By Ann Beattie (T. Coraghessan Boyle, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: QUINN'S BOOK By William Kennedy (T. Coraghessan Boyle, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A WOMAN NAMED DROWN By Padgett Powell (T. Coraghessan Boyle, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: (Laura Reynolds Adler, Book Page)
    -INTERVIEW: AT BREAKFAST WITH: T. Coraghessan Boyle; Biting the Hand That Once Fed Battle Creek (Molly O'Neill, NY Times)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: (Michael Feldman, Whaddaya Know?, NPR)
    -PROFILE: Rolling Boyle (Tad Friend, NY Times Magazine)
    -BIO: (Matthew Henry)
    -T. Coraghessan Boyle Resource Page
    -ESSAY: Haste in the Short Stories of T.C. Boyle (Matt Giuliano)
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Tortilla Curtain  by T. Coraghessen Boyle
    -REVIEW: of THE TORTILLA CURTAIN By T. Coraghessan Boyle (Scott Spencer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Tortilla Curtain  SNOBS AND WETBACKS Sneering at the Class Divide (TIME)
    -REVIEW: of Tortilla Curtain (Carol Tucker, USC Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Tortilla Curtain ( Alan Cogan, Mexico Connect)
    -REVIEW: of The Tortilla Curtain (Andrés T. Tapia, Regeneration magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Tortilla Curtain (Maureen McClarnon)
    -ESSAY: BYE-BYE AMERICAN PIE (Nick Gillespie, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE By T. Coraghessan Boyle (Jane Smiley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Robert Towers: Enigma Variations, NY Review of Books
        The Music of Chance by Paul Auster
        East Is East by T. Coraghessan Boyle
        Traffic and Laughter by Ted Mooney
    -REVIEW: of Riven Rock (Peter Kurth, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Riven Rock (Alan Gottlieb, Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of Without a Hero (David Edelman, Baltimore City Paper)

    -ESSAY: The Welcome Effects of Latino Immigration: Since minorities can't rely on the market to provide jobs and safe neighborhoods, the 1968 Kerner Report suggested, they need something like socialism instead. In the thirty years since, Latino immigrants have proved otherwise. (Michael Barone, Hoover Digest)