Monday, April 9, 2012

The Tortilla Curtain

The library's Tuesday Night Book Group will be discussing T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain (1996) tomorrow night. The publisher website describes the book this way:

'In Southern California's Topanga Canyon, two couples live in close proximity and yet are worlds apart. High atop a hill overlooking the canyon, nature writer Delaney Mossbacher and his wife, real estate agent Kyra Menaker-Mossbacher, reside in an exclusive, secluded housing development with their son, Jordan. The Mossbachers are agnostic liberals with a passion for recycling and fitness. Camped out in a ravine at the bottom of the canyon are Cándido and América Rincón, a Mexican couple who have crossed the border illegally. On the edge of starvation, they search desperately for work in the hope of moving into an apartment before their baby is born. They cling to their vision of the American dream, which, no matter how hard they try to achieve it, manages to elude their grasp at every turn.'

Delaney is delivering his household refuse to the recycling center, driving along Topango Canyon in heavy traffic in his immaculate car when a man darts into traffic and collides with Delaney's car. The victim is hurled into the underbrush and Delaney stops his car to investigate. The car accident is the beginning of Delaney's growing awareness of the illegal Mexican immigrants who live near his exclusive, gated community in the Los Angeles suburbs. When Delaney finds the accident victim, Candido, he gives him twenty dollars and leaves him in pain in the woods. The story then shifts back and forth between the lives of Delaney's family and Candido and his wife America.
In many ways, Tortilla Curtain reminded me of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. Bonfire begins when Sherman McCoy, a rich Wall Street businessman, runs over a black man in the Bronx. The accident propels the action, the plot, the moral reckoning of Wolfe's book as it does in Boyle's. Both Delaney and Bonfire's Sherman McCoy feel guilty about their crime, but rationalize their subsequent neglect of the wounded or dead they left behind. Both men are smug, self-satisfied men, insulated from the real world. In today's parlance, they would be the 'one percent', the superwealthy as labeled by the 'Occupy Wall Street' protesters. Bonfire takes place in the booming Wall Street era of the 1980's. Tortilla Curtain was written in the mid 1990's before most of the U.S., aside from California and other states bordering on Mexico, had even become aware of the surge of illegal immigrants over the border. Each book's themes deal with prejudice, hypocrisy, materialism and greed.
The other book that comes to mind when reading Tortilla Curtain is Voltaire's Candide (1759). No matter how hard Candido works to improve his life, he encounters remarkably bad luck at every turn, but always manages to retain some Panglossian optimism about what is possible in the United States. Like Candide, his optimism and hard work are sorely challenged. Unlike Voltaire's book, the reader does not know how things turn out for Candido at the end. Candide settles down at the end of his journey and decides that he must cultivate his garden and not think endlessly about philosophy and the what-ifs of life. Candide replies to his clueless tutor Pangloss's nattering on with, "mais il faut cultiver notre jardin." And presumably he does let hard work define and comfort him from then on. But for Candido, it is doubtful that his continued hard work will result in anything good unless someone gives him a hand up. At the end of Tortilla Curtain, in the midst of a deadly mudslide, Candido and America and Delaney are swept away in a deluge of mud. Two end up on a raft and one raises his hand from the mud to be grabbed and given a hand up for a second chance.

Read the full text of Candide here.

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