Tortilla Curtain - By T Coraghessan Boyle the Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Tortilla Curtain - by T.Coraghessan Boyle

The much-talked-about "American Dream" - that elusive dream of being able to own a house, raising educated and successful kids, earning middle class money, and most of all being accepted as a functioning part of the great diverse U.S. economic and social structure - is but an "American Myth" to many immigrants arriving in this country. It's certainly a myth for many thousands of Mexicans coming to the U.S. And attempting to carve out a better life for themselves. The Boyle novel offers readers a close-up, graphically realistic view of the hardships that confront those immigrants - juxtaposed with the "good life" of an affluent family living behind stylish walls.

This review of The Tortilla Curtain will compare and contrast the main characters in the novel - Delaney Mossbacker (and his wife Kyra) and Candido Rincon (and his wife America) - in order to come to a greater understanding of the issues mentioned in the first paragraph. The report will also incorporate the view of writers and critics and scholars (culling views and excerpts from academic journals) as to the big picture of Chicano labor history and the deeper meaning behind Boyle's literary effort.

What are Boyle's Motives and Views on the Issues he writes about?

While the novel clearly seems to paint an empathetic picture of the horrors of being a Mexican immigrant in America, it is pertinent to note that the author's personal views on the clash between illegal immigrants and affluent American citizens in the Southern California scene seem to be anything but empathetic. In fact, Boyle's views appear to coincide with those of the right wing - e.g., very anti-immigrant. Is it important to know an author's personal feelings about extremely emotional issues he confronts and writes about regarding key human interaction dramas in America? The answer is yes, if one is truly searching for meaning, value, and truth in one's studies.

With that in mind, according to an in-depth research paper (published in Studies in Contemporary Fiction) on Boyle's novel (Hicks 2003), the author Boyle was interviewed (prior to completion of the novel) as to his opinions on California's Proposition 187, which was approved by voters in 1994.

The passing of Prop. 187 (Mailman 1995) made immigrants "a much maligned species" and was "an effort to drive out undocumented aliens and to deter their entry by cutting them off from medical and other public services." According to the New York Law Journal article by Mailman, Prop. 187 also cut off illegal immigrant children from attending schools in California, and when you deny education to a cultural group arriving in the U.S. As immigrants, you effectively are keeping them from raising their standard of living; in fact, you are keeping them "down" in the trenches of manual labor.]

When asked about Prop. 187 (Hicks 2003), Boyle opined that denying education to illegals is not a good idea because "...We don't want to make an underclass of untouchables and so on." But as to cutting off health and human services to illegals, and "rounding up people who are illegal aliens" - that is "good," Boyle stated. "It's the first step toward getting control over the borders," he continued in the interview. Allowing police and INS to "deport people" is a good idea, Boyle asserted, and "once deported, you should be fingerprinted and if caught again, you should be put in prison with hard labor."

Boyle added, "Not that I have anything against anybody, it's just that you have to have some determination in a free society as to who belongs and in it and who doesn't."

The Character Candido Rincon (contrasted with Delaney)

It doesn't take long for the author to paint the picture that many affluent Southern Californians - and indeed, many affluent Americans from coast to coast - have of illegal aliens. When readers first open the book, Delaney's car has hit Candido, "a frail scrambling hunched-over...dark little man with a wild look in his eye" (3). Candido had "red-flecked eyes" and "rotten teeth," and he had been "crouching in the bushes like some feral thing, like a stray dog or bird-mauling cat..." (4).

Delaney's first reactions, upon realizing he has hit another human, is that Candido must be "obviously insane, demented, [or] suicidal." And Delaney worried immediately about his insurance rates going up (which is editorially in screaming contrast with the fact that there is an injured human out there) and worries too about the damage to his car. And once Delaney did attempt to locate the injured Candido in the bushes (6), he finds "a shopping cart, pocked with rust," which to any alert observer of American life indicates a sad homeless person's plight. It also suggests a homeless person's lifestyle, and many Americans believe that homeless people have chosen that lifestyle, not been thrust into it.

We see in these initial descriptions that Candido is perceived as an animal, something akin to a wild creature, not a human. These descriptions set the tone, in terms of foreshadowing, for the rest of the story. Candido was a "jack-in-the-box" (7) - which of course is not only a toy, but a chain of fast-food restaurants - Boyle writes, and appeared as "loose-jointed as a doll flung in a corner by an imperious little girl." Worse yet, by getting in Delaney's way, Candido had "ruined [Delaney's] afternoon." Candido was nothing more than a "...sad bundle of bone and gristle" who had been "launched...over the side of the canyon like a Ping-Pong ball shot out of a cannon."

As to Candido's view of what happened, readers learn (16) that he "felt as if a bomb had gone off in his head," the kind of bomb that the Americans "dropped on the Japanese." Here, Boyle cleverly connects the fact that Delaney's automobile was a Japanese car (a freshly waxed Acura), and Candido, to complete the paradox, feels like a victim of America's atomic attack of lethal radiation on two great cities in the nation of Japan.

Does the author bring these images into the novel to suggest, subtly, that because the U.S. blew Japan away once but now Americans have a love affair with Japanese autos, hence, because Americans now hate illegal Mexicans, one day they will embrace the Mexican contribution to the U.S. economy - or Mexicans themselves as a culture of worthy people? That might be a stretch, but when studying novels by outstanding authors, one needs to be open to all literary brushstrokes.]

And as to Candido's injuries - "the flesh was still and crusted, as if an old board had been nailed to his head" - Boyle seems to suggest Candido was figuratively crucified like a kind of alien Christ on a cross. And readers of course realize what would have happened if the characters in the accident had been reversed: Delaney would have been rushed to the hospital in a cutting edge emergency vehicle, after having been attended to on the spot by highly-trained, well-paid paramedics - and would receive the finest medical care in the world, thanks to his HMO with Kaiser, or some other health care corporate entity.

But, as Boyle suggests through descriptive narrative (17), none of that kind of emergency care will be offered to the illegal Candido. Rather, he will avoid being ravaged by the "vultures scrawling their ragged signatures in the sky" because "America would help him" by brewing "some tea from manzanita berries." That will "combat the pain," meanwhile, America will also "bathe his wounds" and "cluck her tongue and fuss over him."

True to his humble status on the planet, Candido does not immediately feel like a martyr, but rather he thinks of those who were worse off than he, like "the penitents at Chalma, crawling a mile and a half on their knees, crawling till bone showed through the flesh..."

Boyle has a knack in this novel of connecting and restating images, to help color the characters and create the tone he needs to keep the story dramatic and compelling. On page 10, Delaney believes Candido has "vanished around the bend" while time seemed a "tattered fabric of used and borrowed moments." Then on page 20, Candido is lying beside the fire that his 17-year-old pregnant wife has built to keep him warm, and he is "dreaming with his eyes open" of the day in his childhood when his father hit an opossum with a stick. "The opossum collapsed like a sack of cloth," Boyle writes, "and it lay there, white in the face and with the naked feet and tail of a giant rat, stunned and twitching." So we have "tattered fabric" and "a sack of cloth" - and moreover, when Candido revives the memory of that "stunned and twitching" opossum, "that is how [Candido] felt now, just like that opossum."

Again, the author connects the fact that not only does Candido feel like an animal, his culture of interlopers into the rich U.S. territory are…

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