Saturday, 11 December 2010

T.C. Boyle: The Tortilla Curtain

People have been telling me I should read this book ever since it was published. A friend of mine even teaches it to her creative writing students. I think I must have an inbuilt aversion to hyped books because it’s been sitting on my shelf and I’ve been avoiding eye contact for over a year. Now, I wish I’d read it earlier.
It begins with a quote from The Grapes of Wrath - that other iconic novel about American society. ‘They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.’   These days it seems to be illegal immigrants who are de-humanised by a society that doesn't want to see them or address their problems.   Boyle’s writing, like Steinbeck's,  is tight, so perfectly crafted it never gets in the way of the story - which is explosive. The whole novel is an indictment of contemporary American life - obsessed with material possessions, paranoid, fearful, guilt-ridden and increasingly angry.
Delaney, one of the main characters, is an eco-journalist who wants (in public) to preserve the wilderness, but he has second thoughts when it encroaches on his own private patch of earth. His wife Kyra is a realtor with her eye permanently on closing the next deal. Their lives change dramatically when Delaney knocks down and badly injures an illegal Mexican immigrant, Càndido - the same day a wild coyote skims their fence and goes off with the family’s pet dog.
Càndido is living rough in the canyon with his seventeen year old pregnant wife Amèrica. They have been tempted by the American Dream and have found only a nightmare existence of hunger, discrimination and violence. Càndido is badly injured by the accident, but they can’t afford a doctor, dare not go to a hospital and he’s unable to work to earn money for his young wife.
Delaney is shocked by the accident and, to assuage the guilt he initially feels, gives the man $20 and then convinces himself that Càndido had jumped out in front of him deliberately in order to get money. It’s the beginning of a long sequence of deceptions that ends with the realisation that no gates, walls, or fences, however high can keep out The Wild, or the hordes of hungry people from across the border.
The ending is magnificent. I read it three times in order to grasp its full significance, which is all in the sub-text, pitching you forwards to a future that still holds hope. This is one of the important novels of the 20th century, with a very serious message. But is anyone listening?

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