Review of The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle

ImageThe Tortilla Curtain might not be my favorite T.C. Boyle, but like his others it poses interesting issues, great writing that blends emotion and sarcasm, and even though it was written in 1995 every issue it raises is meaningful today.

Curtain takes place in Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon.  It’s a story of contrasts, between an upper-middle class white family and two recently-arrived illegal immigrants from Mexico.

Delaney Mossbacher is a liberal white guy who lives in a nice home in Topanga Canyon with his wife Kyra and her son Jordan, their two dogs Sacheverell and Osbert and cat Dame Edith.  Delaney has his dream job, writing a daily column on environmental issues in the Canyon.  Kyra is a workaholic real estate agent but also a semi-obsessive parent who worries about what her kid eats and whether he’s safe.  She’s a little bit of a caricature but one we can recognize and relate to.

Boyle sucks you into this book with a startling event.  Delaney, on a perfectly ordinary day, is driving through the Canyon when he hits someone with his car.  It’s not his fault, the guy jumped into the road.  What should he do?  He’s heard about people who jump in front of your car so you get out and they steal your car and your wallet.  But he gets out anyway and looks for the guy.  What if he needs help?

After searching around the Canyon he finds Candido, who’s badly injured but speaks no English.  In broken Spanish Delaney says he’ll call a doctor, but Candido, being illegal, shakes his head no.  He says one word, “money?”, and Delaney, not knowing what to do, gives him a $20.

So what would you do?  If you call the police, Candido gets medical care and a ride back to Mexico, which isn’t what he wants.  If you say nothing, you just gave a guy $20 bucks after you hit him with your car.  Delaney does the latter, takes his car to the dealership and says he hit an animal.  He’s deeply troubled by the incident but even more troubled by what he’s seen in the Canyon – illegal immigrants camping out, leaving trash, running into traffic.  He’s torn between caring about their plight, and resenting their intrusion and damage to his beloved environment.

Where Boyle excels in this book is in creating a vivid contrast between the lives of the upper middle class and the lives of the very poor.

I always appreciate a book that reminds me that I have no idea what it’s like to be desperately poor; and that in this country, we think it’s easy to move up, but everything fights against you when you have nothing.  Candido and wife America have no papers so any money they earn is cash that can be easily stolen.  They have no home, so they are vulnerable to the rain and cold.  They rely on their ability to work, yet they have no health care, no sick days, no healthy food.  They rely on a day labor system designed to underpay them (they’ll take anything) and mistreat them (they have no legal rights).  Plus there’s no guarantee they can even find work from day to day.

When you drive past that corner with guys lined up for day labor, are you uncomfortable?  Why?  Is it knowing these guys might be illegal?  Or knowing they’re being taken advantage of economically?  Or is it just – let’s be honest here – not being comfortable with a large group of Mexican guys standing around on a street corner in our neighborhood.

Another interesting thing Boyle does is introduce two other Mexican characters who are genuinely scary.  Delaney and Kyra, who start out being fairly sympathetic of the immigrants in general, have some encounters with these two characters that end up shaping their views of other Mexicans.  Which of course is unfair to Candido and America, but can we honestly say we aren’t inclined to do that?

The other contrast which I really appreciated is between the issue of environmentalism and human or immigrant rights.  I like to think I’m an environmentalist but I also like to think I put the needs of human beings before those of animals or local plantlife.  On the other hand, sometimes environmental issues are a lot more global than issues facing a single family.  Boyle seems frustrated with environmentalists who don’t care for the actual lives of human beings, but he portrays this as the delicate balance I think it is.

I found Delaney very sympathetic, and my problem with this book was that Delaney goes off the rails a bit and becomes a whole lot less sympathetic, which makes the book a lot less complex.  The way Boyle sets it up, no one’s a hero or a villain.  Delaney isn’t racist, he’s just trying to weigh environmental concerns, the needs of his family, and what he thinks is right.  I also completely get Delaney’s frustration with living in a gated community where everyone wants to keep the outsiders out – but at the same time he has to make the safety of his family his top priority.

Kyra as a character isn’t nearly as sympathetic nor is she a monster.  But the parts of the story told from her point of view seemed to lack depth.  She needed to be more fleshed out or not used as a main character.  Similarly, Boyle’s portrayal of Candido and America seemed a bit too extreme at times.  But I’m not sure I can really say that given their circumstances.

All in all, this book left a lasting impression as do most of Boyle’s books.

  4 comments for “Review of The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle

  1. February 8, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    This is an excellent review. I don’t remember where or why, but I have this on my TBR list. This makes me want to pick it up even sooner.

  2. February 9, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    I’ve never read Boyle, but I have an edition of this one on my shelves that I snatched up when Borders was going out of business. Looking forward to it!

  3. February 14, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    This sounds like a great read. I’ve heard of this book, but I never really knew what it was about. I will definitely look for this one!

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