The Tortilla Curtain
T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novels present conflicts between cultures and values: Englishmen in Africa and an African in Victorian England in Water Music (1982), marijuana growers and Northern California rednecks in Budding Prospects (1984), Dutch settlers of New York and Native Americans in World’s End (1987), a young Japanese and the American South in East Is East (1990), health crusaders and quick-buck artists in The Road to Wellville (1993). The Tortilla Curtain makes overt all that is implicit in these novels and several of Boyle’s stories.
The antagonists this time are illegal immigrants from Mexico and well-to-do Southern California suburbanites, though the antagonism is mostly one-sided, with the middle-class whites fearing that the invasion from the south is growing out of control. Another conflict occurs with nature, much less easy to manipulate and rationalize than human endeavors. Here Boyle combines the plight of the impoverished, materialism, racism, and natural forces to construct a blatantly didactic message. Taking his epigraph from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Boyle presents another desperate journey toward hoped-for prosperity. Such an approach is unusual for Boyle, who is essentially a comic satirist, but World’s End was an even darker vision of human pettiness.
Boyle tells the story of two contrasting couples mostly in alternating chapters. The middle-aged Cándido Rincón had ventured into the United States before because of the lack of work in Mexico. This time he brings his pregnant seventeen-year-old wife, América. They plan to live in the open until Cándido earns enough money to find them a cheap apartment. Things fail to go according to this plan from the very beginning, when he is struck by a car and slightly injured.
The driver is Delaney Mossbacher, who lives in the posh Arroyo Blanco Estates with his second wife, Kyra, and her six-year-old son, Jordan. Delaney, a native New Yorker who writes a column for a nature magazine, loves where he lives because it is close to the wild. Kyra, a workaholic real-estate agent, loves Arroyo Blanco for its property values and will do anything to protect it. She is concerned that the Mexicans who gather nearby to look for work will drive down property values, and she turns against nature when a coyote leaps over a fence into her backyard to snatch one of her beloved Dandie Dinmont terriers. When Jack Jardine, president of the Arroyo Blanco Estates Property Owners’ Association, wants to have a wall built around the development, Kyra supports the plan, but Delaney is appalled at being cut off from nature and by the implied racism of the residents’ desire to live in a fortress.
While the Mossbachers worry about invaders, the Rincóns are concerned with surviving. They find some work—América cleans statues of Buddha—and see their meager savings grow, but América is assaulted, and Cándido is beaten and robbed. After they have accumulated another nest egg, Cándido is given a turkey for Thanksgiving, but when he begins cooking it, he sets Topanga Canyon on fire. The blaze, which almost reaches Arroyo Blanco, consumes the Rincóns’ savings, which had been buried in the ground in a jar. On the run from the fire and the authorities, América gives birth to a daughter, Socorro. After Cándido steals the materials to make his family a crude hut, rains cause a mud slide that washes it—and the baby—away.
The Rincóns’ misfortunes are presented in ironic juxtaposition to those of the Mossbachers. Delaney’s Acura is stolen, Kyra’s other dog is also taken by a coyote, and her cat goes missing in the fire. (It and other pets are eaten by the desperate Rincóns.) Delaney’s liberalism erodes, and he comes to see the Mexicans as the cause of all of his troubles.
Boyle presents Cándido and América as noble sufferers but tries to make them believably less than perfect. América is intolerant of her husband’s failures and longs for the same material comforts that the inhabitants of Arroyo Blanco desperately want to protect. When she and Cándido first lose their money, she experiences a nervous breakdown and does not speak to her husband for days. Even the Job-like Cándido once loses his temper and strikes his pregnant wife.
Cándido’s quest is for more than work, money, food, and shelter. He needs to acquire an ordinary way of life to restore his sense of dignity, as well as América’s respect for him. (His wife’s ironic name works on several levels.) More than anything, he longs for América’s admiration and is willing to endure anything for her. The money he earns through long hours of construction jobs becomes a symbol of his love.
Despite one setback after another, Cándido cannot give up:...
(The entire section is 1987 words.)