I’m just getting around to T.C. Boyle. Seems like it’s my year for getting around to reading stuff that’s been on my mind but not in front of my face.
The Tortilla Curtain is in the tradition of social crusading books such as Sinclair’s The Jungle or Frank Norris’s The Octopus, and as you might guess is set in Southern California. The book opens with the Mexican protagonist, Candido, getting hit by an Acura driven by the book’s main white guy–DeLaney. DeLaney lives in an exclusive community on a hillside above Topanga canyon. The folks in Arroyo Blanco are fleeing the horrors of urban L.A. The horrors of urban L.A. are chasing them in the form of illegal immigrant Mexicans looking for work to make money to send back home.
Candido is badly hurt, but is afraid to seek help and manages to limp away after begging some money (DeLaney springs for twenty dollars.) from his assaulter. Candido, it turns out, is camped in the canyon with his pregnant “wife,” America. The two characters’ names are obviously symbolic in some way. I suppose “Candido” is a cognate for Candide, Voltaire’s beleaguered innocent. He certainly gets beat up as often and as badly as his eighteenth-century counterpart. America is a newfound land, full of promise and hope–at least at the beginning. Anyhow, while Candido heals, America is forced to seek work and undergoes a number of abuses from gringo and Mexican alike.
Up the hill, DeLaney, a liberal nature writer with a hard-driving real estate wife, battles his neighbors and his own fears to keep Arroyo Blanco folks from isolating themselves with more gates and fences from the encroaching hordes of Mexicans on the one side and coyotes on the other. And thus it goes.
I have another Boyle book in the offing on the same theme–though the problem in that one seems to concern Japanese rather than Mexicans. I wondered if Boyle was more of a one-note Johnny than I’d been led to believe. However, I just finished “Balto” in The Best American Short Stories of 2007, a short story (originally printed in The Paris Review) that has nothing to do with social protest (unless you consider making DUI’s and bad parenting look bad social protests) and is as fine a short story as I’ve read in a long time.
Though the social tract aspect of The Tortilla Curtain is obvious and makes the book somewhat two-dimensional, Boyle is a fine storyteller and, he keeps you coming back for more from one end of the book to the other. The ending is a surprise and almost rescues the book from its polemic problems. As far as the problem itself is concerned, it’s interesting to note that neither the issues nor the problems have changed at all since the book was written in 1995. Except to get worse.