Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In The Tortilla Curtain, T. C. Boyle satirically explores the physical and conceptual barriers that separate Mexican Americans and European Americans in Southern California. While numerous aspects of this situation have changed since its 1995 publication, many issues that Boyle considers remain current. By applying mordant humor to complex problems, Boyle helps the reader sees the serious side of an important dimension of American life.
Boyle draws two contrasting characters who meet through a random event, when a wealthy white liberal, Delaney Mossbacher, accidentally hits with his car a poor working-class Mexican American, Cándido Rincón. Although the two live in almost adjacent neighborhoods, class, race, citizenship, and a highway separate them. For his silence, Delaney offers a few dollars to Cándido, who does not want to involve the police because he is undocumented. This chance encounter sets in motion a series of further coincidences that highlight the contrasts between them. Without documents and lacking money, Cándido and his pregnant wife are homeless and cannot even buy food, while Delaney and his wife occupy a luxurious condo in a new development.
Not only do the two men occupy separate worlds but the gulf between them is also growing. Delaney’s liberal values are eroded by living among more conservative neighbors. When Cándido accidentally starts a fire that threatens Delaney’s development, however, the tables are soon turned and they become unlikely allies.
Boyle’s unique brand of American satire finds many subjects to lampoon in this multicultural urban world, but by exaggerating the stereotypes to the point of caricature, he makes it difficult for the reader to empathize with any of the characters. The novel often comes across as hollow mockery rather than meaningful satire.