Posted by: istop4books | August 18, 2010

The Tortilla Curtain, by T.C.Boyle

A curiosity of a book, published in 1996 which undertakes some pretty heavy issues of immigration, illegal Mexicans, racism, safety, the American way.  In 2010 this novel resonates heavily given the new laws in Arizona which target illegals and , moreover, anyone who looks like they could be illegal.

The story deals with two couples – Delaney and Kyra, a well-to-do Californian couple with a kid, a couple of yapper dogs and a cat, living in a community struggling to keep the riff-raff out, home prices up, be safe and enjoy the life they’ve worked hard to earn.  Meet the other couple, America and Candido, illegal Mexicans who crossed the Tortilla Curtain (the US-Mexican porous border) risking their lives with the hope of making in a couple of months what would take all year to make in Mexico.  They are robbed, swindled, lied to and worse – and that’s only by fellow Mexicans.  They wind up living in a ravine just down from Delaney and Kyra’s house; living, though, is too strong a word, they merely survive, camping out with no running water nor shelter, hiding from the “migra” (immigration police) and other Mexican thugs willing to steal from anyone.

These two unlikely couples come in contact when Delaney hits Candido with his car; shocked,  he reaches in his wallet and throws $20 at Candido as the Mexican hobbles away, terrified of going to a doctor as that would lead to deportation.  As Candido lies in his campsite, tended to by his pregnant wife America, the full weight of what has happened falls on him, as not only can he not stand and walk, there is no way he can make it up the ravine and get any work.  And so America, at 17 years old and pregnant goes to work.  Meanwhile, Delaney, a naturalist broadminded kind of guy deals with his guilt while his wife works the neighborhood trying vehemently to get a wall built up around their subdivision and keep out coyotes – both of the 4 legged and 2 legged varieties.

Over the course of several weeks, events spiral terribly out of control.  The couples, each in their own way, can’t seem to cut a break. If there is a weak spot in the book, it is this part of the plot, which is unrelenting and heavy.

This is not a book of clear cut characters.  The plot is not black and white.  Boyle succeeds in allowing the reading to ride the fence.  At one point siding with the Americans and at others siding with the Mexicans.  Both the Delayney and his wife Kyra, and Candido and America are trying to better their lives.  They come to the reader quite flawed, and as such, at times hard to sympathize with, although the plight of Candido and America is gut-wrenching.

What Boyle doesn’t really explore in depth are the white Californians who hire illegal Mexicans, exploit them, use their cheap labor to build the walls that ultimately distance them.  He lays it out throughout the novel, for the reader to decide on, there are no quick fixes, easy answers or tidy endings.

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