Friday, July 15, 2011

the second-last book I read

The Tortilla Curtain by TC Boyle.

Or T. Coraghessan Boyle, as he was still calling himself when this was published in 1995 (before the other two Boyles I've read, 1998's Riven Rock and 2004's The Inner Circle). My second-hand Penguin paperback dates from about 1996, I think; newer printings carry the shortened name.

Anyway. Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher live in the exclusive hilltop neighbourhood of Arroyo Blanco above Topanga Canyon on the edge of the Los Angeles suburbs. Meanwhile Cándido and América Rincon are scratching out a hand-to-mouth existence in a makeshift encampment in the canyon, having entered the country illegally over the border with Mexico, had all their money stolen from them in the process, and found themselves unable to find work or lodgings. Their already dire situation isn't helped when Delaney runs over Cándido in his car on the canyon road, inflicting some nasty facial lacerations, an arm injury and some general bruising. Not life-threatening stuff, but it means Cándido is in no state even to look for work, so América has to take it upon herself to look. Which isn't easy, since she speaks almost no English, and a young woman in her situation is an obvious target for unscrupulous and predatory men.

Back up in Arroyo Blanco, it's not just the illegal immigrants that the residents have to worry about - there's the canyon wildlife as well. Kyra's two pampered Dandie Dinmonts are taken from their back garden by coyotes in two separate incidents, prompting Kyra and Delaney to install a higher fence to keep them out. Meanwhile Delaney (who writes articles for an outdoor pursuits magazine) heads off into the hills for a hike and comes back to find his car stolen, Kyra (who is a real estate agent) has an unsettling encounter with a couple of Mexicans near one of her properties, and there is a general spate of burglaries around the neighbourhood, all of which prompts the locals to propose an entry gate and boundary wall around the property for increased security. Delaney, good L.A. liberal that he is, is uncomfortable about this: doesn't it imply that we think all Mexicans are criminals? And why move out to the canyon to be next to nature if you're then going to concrete it over and install security guards round the perimeter?

Cándido and América have more immediate concerns, though: América is heavily pregnant and they are in desperate need of money. América has found some cleaning work but this ends when she is attacked and raped by the same Mexicans that were harrassing Kyra; and Cándido has been doing some labouring work (ironically including helping to install the beefed-up boundary fence at the back of the Mossbachers' property). So maybe things are looking up? It certainly looks that way when the local supermarket starts giving away free Thanksgiving turkeys with every $50 purchase, and one of the recipients (already having a turkey) lobs it to Cándido in the car park. Unfortunately while building up a nice big fire to spit-roast it on Cándido manages to ignite the tinder-dry brush in the canyon and start a full-blown forest fire.

The fire is eventually extinguished by the combined efforts of the L.A. fire department and a flurry of rain, but the general assumption that it must have been started by illegal immigrants in the canyon merely reinforces everyone's anti-Mexican feelings. Cándido and América narrowly escape being roasted alive by the fire and find shelter behind the Arroyo Blanco boundary wall, where América finally gives birth to their child, a daughter. Cándido heads off back to the road to fetch supplies, where he once again encounters Delaney, who this time narrowly avoids running him down, but instead jumps out of the car and chases him back up into the canyon. Before a confrontation can take place, however, the constant rain causes a landslide which puts Delaney, Cándido and América's previous problems into perspective....

Boyle is a bit difficult to categorise - he has a reputation as a comic novelist, but there's not much humour here, or at least what there is is pitch-black at best. It's mainly a brutal satire of American attitudes to immigration and immigrants, on both the conservative and liberal sides. Where do you draw the line in terms of home security without it being counter-productive? You don't want coyotes roaming round your garden, but put up a ten-foot wall and you can't see the view, can you? In any case, the wall and the gate just signal to the outsiders that there's something inside worth having - particularly tempting if you're literally in the position of having to steal something or starve to death. And how much moral high ground can you claim when those you are excluding and forcing into criminality are those who you displaced from this land in the first place and imposed borders of your own devising on? This is a theme also explored (in a different geographical and historical context) in The Conversations At Curlow Creek. While we're talking echoes of other books I should add that opening with a car colliding with a human echoes both Slow Man and, more obviously, Tom Wolfe's mighty The Bonfire Of The Vanities.

I think overall this is the best of the three Boyles I've read - the savage glee he takes in subjecting Cándido and América to as many misfortunes and indignities as possible, and in dismantling the "common sense" attitudes to immigration to reveal the racism that underlies them is very invigorating. The Tortilla Curtain won the French Prix Médicis étranger award in 1997; my short list for this goes 1980, 1997, 1998, 2000.

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