The Tortilla Curtain
T.C. Boyle, 1995
Penguin Group USA
Men and women with brown faces and strong backs who risk everything to cross the Mexican border and invade the American Dream are the Okies of the 1990s. Two of them, Candido and America Rincon, have come to Southern California and are living in a makeshift camp deep in a ravine, fighting off starvation.
At the top of Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. And from the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delaney into intimate contact, the two couples and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—December 2, 1948
• Where—Peekskill, New York, USA
• Education—B.A., State University of New York at Potsdam; Ph.D., Iowa University
• Awards—PEN/Faulkner Award, 1998
• Currently—lives near Santa Barbara, California
T. Coraghessan Boyle (kuh-RAGG-issun) received his doctorate in nineteenth-century English literature from the University of Iowa in 1977. Since 1977, Boyle has taught creative writing at the University of Southern California. While in college, Boyle exchanged his middle name, John, for the unusual Coraghessan (kuh-RAGG-issun), the name of one of his Irish ancestors.
Boyle is the author of Descent of Man (1979), Water Music (1982), Budding Prospects (1984), Greasy Lake (1985), World's End (1987, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction), If the River Was Whiskey (1989), East Is East (1990), The Road to Wellville (1993), which was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins, and Without a Hero (1994). His work has appeared in major American magazines, including The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, Paris Review, and Atlantic Monthly. Boyle lives with his wife, Karen, and their three children near Santa Barbara, California, in a house designed in 1909 by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the interest of time and space, it might be easier to note the writers that T. C. Boyle isn't compared to. But let's give the reverse a try: Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Evelyn Waugh, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Kingsley Amis, Thomas Berger, Robert Coover, Lorrie Moore, Stanley Elkin, Tom Robbins, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Don DeLillo, Flannery O'Connor. Oh, let's not forget F. Lee Bailey. And Dr. Seuss.
Boyle, widely admired for his acrobatic verbal skill, wild narratives and quirky characters (in one short story, he imagines a love affair between Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev's wife), has dazzled critics since his first novel in 1981.
Consider this example, from Larry McCaffery in a 1985 article for the New York Times:
Beneath its surface play, erudition and sheer storytelling power, his fiction also presents a disturbing and convincing critique of an American society so jaded with sensationalized images and plasticized excess that nothing stirs its spirit anymore.... It is into this world that Mr. Boyle projects his heroes, who are typically lusty, exuberant dreamers whose wildly inflated ambitions lead them into a series of hilarious, often disastrous adventures.
But as much as critics will bow at his linguistic gifts, some also knock him for resting on them a bit too heavily, hinting that the impressive showmanship attempts to hide a shortage of depth and substance. Craig Seligman, writing in the New Republic in 1993, pointed out that...
Boyle loves a mess. He loves chaos. He loves marshes and jungles, and he loves the jungle of language: luxuriant sentences overgrown with lianas of lists, sesquipedalian words hanging down like rare fruits. For all its exoticism, though, his prose is lucid to the point of transparency. It doesn't require much deeper concentration than a good newspaper (though it does require a dictionary).
Reviewing The Tortilla Curtain in 1995, New York Times critic Scott Spencer scratched his head over why Boyle had invited readers along for this particular ride:
Mr. Boyle's fictional strategy is puzzling. Why are we being asked to follow the fates of characters for whom he clearly feels such contempt? Not surprisingly, this is ultimately off-putting. Perhaps Mr. Boyle has received too much praise for his zany sense of humor; in this book, that wit often seems merely a maddening volley of cheap shots. It's like living next door to a gun nut who spends all day and half the night shooting at beer bottles.
Growing up, Boyle had no aspirations to be a writer. It wasn't until his studies at State University of New York, where he as a music student, that he bumped into his muse. "I went there to be a music major but found I really couldn't hack that at the age of 17," he told The Writer in 1999. "I just started to read outside my classes—literature and history. I wound up being a history and English major; when I wandered into a creative writing class as a junior, I realized that writing was what I could do."
He then started teaching, in part to avoid getting drafted into the Vietnam War, and later applied to the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop.
After a collection of short stories in 1979, he released his first novel, Water Music, called "pitiless and brilliant" by the New Republic, and has shuttled back and forth between novels and short stories, all known for their explosions of character imagination. Mr. Boyle's literary sensibility...thrives on excess, profusion, pushing past the limits of good taste to comic extremes," McCaffery wrote in his 1985 New York Times piece. "He is a master of rendering the grotesque details of the rot, decay and sleaze of a society up to its ears in K Mart oil cans, Kitty Litter and the rusted skeletons of abandoned cars and refrigerators."
In his review of Drop City, the 2003 novel set in California commune that won Boyle a National Book Award nomination, Dwight Garner joins the chorus of critical acclaim over the years—"Boyle has always been a fiendishly talented writer"—but he also acknowledges some of the criticism that Boyle has faced in these same years:
The rap against Boyle's work has long been that he's a sort of madcap predator drone, raining down hard nuggets of contempt, sarcasm and bitter humor on the poor men and women in his books while rarely giving us characters we're actually persuaded to feel anything about. This is partly a bum rap—and I'd hate to knock contempt, sarcasm and bitter humor—but there's enough truth in it that it's a joy to find, in Drop City that Boyle gives us a lot more than simply a line of bong-addled innocents led to slaughter.
But perhaps the neatest summary of Boyle's work would be from Lorrie Moore, one of the novelists to which he has been compared. In a 1994 New York Times review of Boyle's short story collection Without a Hero, she praised Boyle's "astonishing and characteristic verve, his unaverted gaze, his fascination with everything lunatic and queasy." She continues...
God knows, Mr. Boyle can write like an angel, if at times a caustic, gum-chewing one. And in this strong, varied collection maybe we have what we'd hope to find in heaven itself (by the time we begged our way there): no lessening of brilliance, plus a couple of laughs to mitigate all that high and distant sighing over what goes on below."
• Boyle changed his middle name from John to Coraghessan ( "kuh-RAGG-issun") when he was 17.
• He is known almost as much for his ego as his writing. "Each book I put out, I think, 'Goodbye, Updike and Mailer, forget it," the New Republic quoted him as saying. "I joke at Viking that I'm going to make them forget the name of Stephen King forever, I'm going to sell so many copies.
• Boyle's philosophy on reading and writing, as told to The Writer: "Good literature is a living, brilliant, great thing that speaks to you on an individual and personal level. You're the reader. I think the essence of it is telling a story. It's entertainment. It's not something to be taught in a classroom, necessarily. To be alive and be good, it has to be a good story that grabs you by the nose and doesn't let you go till The End." (From Barnes and Noble)
In The Tortilla Curtain, Mr. Boyle deftly portrays Los Angeles's Topanga Canyon, catching both its privileged society and its underlying geological and ecological instability. But while the book has heft, its story is slight, and not unfamiliar.... The Tortilla Curtain is a political novel for an age that has come to distrust not only politicians but political solutions, a modernist muckraking novel by an author who sees the muck not only in class structure and prejudice but in the souls of human beings. Yet where the socially engaged novel once offered critique, Mr. Boyle provides contempt.... [But] contempt is a dangerous emotion, luring us into believing that we understand more than we do.
Scott Spencer - New York Times Book Review
This highly engaging story subtly plays on our consciences, forcing us to form, confirm, or dispute social, political, and moral viewpoints. This is a profound and tragic tale, one that exposes not only a failed American Dream, but a failing America.
Janet St. John - Booklist
The inestimably gifted Boyle (The Road to Wellville, 1993, etc.) puts on a preacher's gown and mounts the pulpit to proclaim a hellfire sermon against bigotry and greed—in this rather wan updating of The Grapes of Wrath. If Boyle is to be believed, Los Angeles County has gradually evolved into a kind of minimum-security prison, with the prosperous Anglos living in fear of their lives behind the walls of their suburban security compounds. Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher moved as far from the city as they could, and settled in a tastefully "authentic" tract development just above Topanga Canyon. Au courant to a fault, Kyra brings home the bacon as a hot-shot real estate agent, while Delaney stands in as Mr. Mom—cooking their lowfat meals, seeing after their pets and their son, and writing a monthly column for a nature magazine. Below them, in the Canyon itself, Candido and America Ricon have crossed the Mexican border illegally and seek refuge of their own in the makeshift camp they've erected. Candido meets Delaney at the beginning of the story when Delaney runs him down with his car, and this pretty much establishes the tone of their relations throughout. Candido, as hapless as his namesake in Voltaire, wants only to work and look after his pregnant wife, but he's thwarted on every side by an exasperated white society with no room for him. Implausible circumstances keep bringing Delaney and Candido back to each other, and the tension that builds between them becomes an image of the ferocity that smolders within the city around them—exploding in an apocalyptic climax that combines a brushfire and a riot, with an earthquake thrown in for good measure. A morality play too obvious to be swallowed whole: Boyle's first real lemon so far.
(Below you'll find discussion questions, as well as background information on US immigration; both are provided by Penguin Group USA, publishers.)
1. At the beginning of the story, Delaney accidentally hits Candido with his car. "For a long moment, they stood there, examining each other, unwitting perpetrator and unwitting victim." How does this encounter set the tone for the events that follow? Does it come full circle in the final scene?
2. The novel is forged on the cultural, social, and financial differences between the Mossbachers and the Rincóns. It alternates between the two couples' points of view, allowing the reader to enter the lives of both families. How does this technique propel the story? Do you feel that you got to know each of the couples equally well? Was the author fair in his portrayal of each of the couples? Is he too harsh in his portrayal of the Mossbachers, as one reviewer suggested?
3. Candido and America crossed the border in search of a better life for themselves and their unborn child. They do not ask for much and are willing to work hard, yet they are constantly met with resistance and failure. There are numerous references to Candido's bad luck. Is he unlucky? Is there anything he could have done to have changed his luck? What does this story say about the American dream?
4. The symbol of the coyote appears throughout the novel and represents illegal Mexican immigrants. In his nature column, Delaney writes, "The coyote is not to blame—he is only trying to survive, to make a living, to take advantage of the opportunities available to him." He concludes the same column by writing, "The coyotes keep coming, breeding up to fill in the gaps, moving in where the living is easy. They are cunning, versatile, hungry and unstoppable." How do these passages reflect Delaney's mixed feelings about illegal immigrants? Is he a hypocrite? As the novel progresses, Delaney's humanistic beliefs give way to racism and resentment, and he directs his rage at all illegal immigrants onto Cándido. When confronted with evidence that Candido is not the vandal at Arroyo Blanco, he destroys it. Why does Delaney need to believe that the vandal is Cándido? How does Delaney evolve from being a "liberal humanist" to a racist?
5. Boundaries—both real and imagined—play a large role in the novel, especially the front gate at Arroyo Blanco Estates. In what other instances do boundaries appear and what do they represent? What roles do the different characters play in constructing these boundaries?
6. In a recent interview Boyle stated, "If it's satire, it has to bite somebody, has to have teeth in it, otherwise it's useless." How does satire affect The Tortilla Curtain and the telling of the story? Is it a successful technique?
7. The novel concludes with Delaney confronting Candido with a gun, followed by a mud slide. In an almost simultaneous moment, Candido realizes his baby is missing and reaches down to offer Delaney a hand. One is a frightening image and the other an act of generosity. How do these contrasting images play off one another? Did the conclusion leave you with a feeling of hope or despair?
8. During an argument with Jack Jardine, Delaney makes the following statement: "Do you realize what you're saying? Immigrants are the lifeblood of this country—and neither of us would be standing here today if it wasn't." In another instance, Jack says to Delaney, "What do you expect, when all you bleeding hearts want to invite the whole world in here to feed at our trough without a thought as to who's going to pay for it, as if the American taxpayer was like Jesus Christ with his loaves and fishes." How do these two sentiments play out in the novel and in the larger issue of immigration?
9. The author stated in the Conversation section of this guide that he feels it is a novelist's job to inhabit people of other races and sexes, for his own understanding of an issue as well as for the reader's. Did The Tortilla Curtain help you to better understand the issue of immigration and the people involved?
10. The author does not offer a solution to the problem of illegal immigration, for which he was praised by several reviewers. Do you think he should have offered a solution?
Background on U.S. and Immigration
The debate over immigration continues to escalate across the nation, particularly in California, and this sampling of quotations and statistics from various newspapers and magazines sheds light on the issue.
• History suggests that those who truly yearn to come to America and stay will find a way to do it. (Newsweek, August 9, 1993).
• In November 1994, California passed by a 59% to 41% vote Proposition 187, a bill that denies certain social privileges, mainly welfare, public schooling, and non-emergency medical care, to illegal immigrants. (The New York Times, November 11, 1994)
• California hosts about 40% of the nation's estimated 3.4 million illegal immigrants. (Time, November 21, 1994).
• "All Americans...are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.... We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it." (President Clinton, "We Heard America Shouting," Address to Joint Session of Congress, January 25, 1995).
• "Our immigration policy is a measure of who we are as a people. I believe we are a people who draw strength from our diversity and meet our challenges head on. I believe we want and deserve immigration laws that favor those who play by the rules." (Bill Bradley, former U.S. Senator, New Jersey, The New Jersey Record, June 8, 1995).
• About 800,000 people follow the rules and enter the United States legally as immigrants each year. An additional 200,000 to 300,000 come to the country illegally. (San Francisco Chronicle, December 5, 1995).
• Half of illegal immigrants do not cross the borders unlawfully—they enter legally and overstay their visas. (San Francisco Chronicle, March 18, 1996)
(Questions and Background issued by publisher.)
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