Friday, September 27, 2013

The Tortilla Curtain

The Tortilla Curtain
T.C. Boyle
Published 1995

First Sentence
"Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces--the bumper of his car and that frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye--but he wasn't very successful."
Publisher's Description:
Read by the author.

The author of East Is East replays the tragi-comic meeting of representatives from two different cultures with nothing in common. This book calmly grabs hold with an unexpected suspense.

A Mexican illegal immigrant couple, Candido and America Rincon, seek a better life in Southern California. Candido's freak accident shows the couple's vulnerability and they are afraid to seek help. Each small improvement they are able to make in their daily existence, is quickly erased. They cross paths with Delany Mossbacher, a liberal nature writer who lives in a gated community in the same canyon. The story is artfully told from each character's point of view and the reader is torn between the shifting currents in each world. Cultural misunderstandings and tragic errors create the gripping realization that this may be one story without a perfect ending.

Dear Reader,

This is my first T.C. Boyle book, and it was a very interesting introduction to a novelist I've heard many good things about!  You might be wondering why I chose to read a book that was first published in 1995 and sometimes feels somewhat dated.  Well, it's largely because it was an audiobook, and available from my library's Overdrive offerings, so I figured I'd give it a go - I've been wanting to read Boyle for ages now, and I saw this and downloaded it.  Simple as that.  Like I said, it wasn't probably the best book to start with, but it's too late now, and besides - I still very much enjoyed reading it!  It was especially enjoyable to hear Boyle read his own work; I always prefer when authors narrate, because then I feel like I am truly getting to hear how they wanted every word to be read.

Some might find my initial comparison to David Foster Wallace odd, but it recalled strongly to me the feel of The Pale King, Wallace's posthumously-released (and never actually finished!) exploration into the life and history of an IRS employee.  Perhaps it was Boyle's attention to details about people which struck me as very similar to DFW.  In any case, that first impression didn't last the entire book, but it was something I wanted to make note of, in case anyone else enjoyed The Pale King as much as I did.

The story revolves around the lives of two very different couples - that of white, upper-middle-class Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher compared with that of almost-starving, illegal-immigrant Cándido Rincon and his young wife América.  Their lives cross paths suddenly and unexpectedly one day when Delaney mistakenly hits Cándido with his car as the latter was trying to cross the road.  From there, the story unfolds by taking turns alternating focus between all four of the main adult characters.  Delaney writes a nature column and is stay-at-home dad; he is generally a very laid-back and open-minded kind of guy.  Compare that with his wife Kyra, an ambitious real estate agent who longs for the safety and comfort she believes money can bring.  Meanwhile, the reader gets to delve into the tough and hand-to-mouth life that Cándido and América must endure; the one cannot work because he is hurt, so the other must take odd jobs as she can get them, even though women are much less desirable at the labor pool where all illegal Mexicans congregate every morning in order to offer up their low-cost services to the rich white gringos who want to keep as much of their own money as possible. 

The story begins simply as a recounting of both sides' passions, beliefs, and situations, but then begins to reveal itself for what it really is: a thorough examination of the racial tensions which tore through California during the late 90s.  It was especially interesting reading it as a native New Englander and self-proclaimed liberal, who never had to experience either side of such a difficult situation.  But I did find it fascinating alternating between feeling kind of "above" the Mossbachers' somewhat materialistic lifestyle, and feeling bad for the struggles that the Mexicans had to endure.  However, you do find yourself (or at least, I did!) understanding more about where each side is coming from.  Since the Mossbachers never really get to see what the Rincons are going through, it's easy to understand why they become upset and scared when they lose beloved pets and become victims of vandalizing.  And you can't help but feel a deep sense of tragedy for the Rincons and their situation, which feels like it is always impossible to dig out of, even when they get a break here and there.  

Ultimately, I got the impression that Boyle's novel was about the importance of communication.  The need for all of us not to jump to conclusions about people based simply on their appearance or their actions.  We can never know what situation we will find ourselves in; it does help to try to empathize as much as possible, I do believe.  I think the ending of the book was beautiful, even if it felt somewhat lacking initially - I couldn't believe it was the end, just like that! - but I found after thinking about it that I loved how it stopped where it did.  It left the reader with perhaps a bit of hope, or at least an open-ended question about what could have transpired thereafter. 

I would recommend this book to most readers, even despite some of its dated references and feel.  I think it's always a great idea to walk in someone else's shoes for a little while from time to time.

Happy Reading!

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