David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “The Tortilla Curtain”

T. Coraghessan Boyle's 'The Tortilla Curtain'This book review was originally published on Critics’ Choice on October 18, 1995.

Through the course of five novels and four short story collections, T. Coraghessan Boyle has proven himself an extraordinary (if erratic) satirist. His disdain for the politically correct and his peculiar sense of humor have propelled some spectacular successes (The Road to Wellville and East Is East) that tend to irritate, educate, and entertain all at the same time.

Why mess with success? Boyle’s publisher calls his new novel, The Tortilla Curtain, a new direction for the author. Instead, it’s a pious rehash of John Steinbeck unredeemed by even a smidgen of Boyle’s trademark levity.

The Tortilla Curtain alternates between a precious leftist couple living in a gated suburb of Los Angeles and an illegal immigrant couple piecing together a rag-and-bone existence scant miles away in a ravine. Their association begins with a car accident and gradually develops until their fates are entwined in the face of a natural disaster that threatens them both.

Along the way, Boyle shows us the disintegration of nature writer Delaney Mossbacher and his real estate mogul wife Kyra from sensitive liberals into passionate Mexican-haters. Starting with the car accident (where Delaney buys off the battered immigrant’s silence with a hasty twenty bucks) and escalating through a series of domestic mishaps, the frustrated Mossbachers become a symbol of white frustration gone rancid. Meanwhile, Candido and America Rincon set up a makeshift shanty in the woods, scrounge for work and dignity, and try to avoid the INS right under the Mossbachers’ noses.

Obviously Boyle is trying to cut through the racial tensions between the whites and the browns in an increasingly hostile Southern California. He takes pains to point out the commonalities between the two cultures while downplaying the differences as necessity-driven. All of this is certainly an admirable goal, but The Tortilla Curtain is a humorless, heavy-handed vehicle for Boyle’s social commentary. (Candido’s name is also obviously stolen from Voltaire’s Candide, the naive optimist convinced that God has placed us in the best of all possible worlds.) Boyle conducted a much more effective campaign against Western ethnocentricism with his novel East Is East, and that was a funny book to boot.

Certainly it’s a healthy sign for a novelist to branch out and try something new. But let’s hope that The Tortilla Curtain only turns out to be a detour for T. Coraghessan Boyle and not a new road altogether.

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