Boyle, T C. The Tortilla Curtain. Penguin New York, 1995. F; 11/22.
I think this is the third book I’ve read by this author and I’ve reviewed two of them. Boyle is incredibly prolific, 12 short story collections and 18 novels to his credit starting in about 1979. I read World’s End (1987) back in about 1990 and loved it, rereading it and reviewing it in 2017. Later I read The Terranauts (2016) and found it much less compelling. This one falls into what appear to me to be Boyle’s strong early years. It carries the same incredibly terrifying human experience and roller coaster emotion and also as we read it seems to warn us: “Look Out. The bad may in the end outweigh the good.” Overall for me it’s not quite tied together as well as World’s End.
Candido an illegal immigrant from Mexico and his younger pregnant wife America are camping in a canyon near Los Angeles. He is hit by a car driven by Delaney, a white nature writer who lives in an eventually gated and walled-in community outside the city. Candido recovers, but the plot keeps the two men close geographically but far apart in lifestyle, Candido struggling terribly with every kind of outrageous sling and arrow punctuated by only brief bright respites of success. America has their baby and suffers alongside him. Delaney struggles morally (only sometimes successfully) against his neighbours’ scapegoating of immigrants.
PLOT ALERT. Candido inadvertently sets the forest on fire and triggers a near-catastrophe that could have engulfed Delaney’s otherwise safe neighbourhood, the Mexican couple and their baby holed up in a shack behind that neighbourhood experiencing along with it an apparently cataclysmic final mudslide. END of story (and PLOT ALERT).
I have the same strange response to this powerful novel as I did to his earlier one. Boyle is a thrilling and technically skilful writer. For me the in-our-faces “moral” of the rich white Californians and the have-not Mexicans isn’t what primarily drives his dramatic impact and grips my attention, it’s the skilful huge emotional reversals delivered with deadon pinpoint precision. I really care about the characters themselves as he describes them. But as we are told we go searching for the author as we read: Who is he? What’s going on behind the scenes where this literary magician controls the show? I’m not seized with the same hopeless ambition to meet and get to know Mr. Boyle as I might have been with Nabokov, Wallace, Eliot, Ferrante.
Gripping and disturbing.