Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"The Tortilla Curtain," by T. Coraghessan Boyle

There is something special about an author’s reading her or his own work on audio. I just listened to T. Coraghessan Boyle (also known as T. C. Boyle) read his novel “The Tortilla Curtain” on CD (Blackstone Audio 2006; originally published 1995). It tells the stories of two couples in a hilly, woodsy suburban area of Los Angeles. One couple is Delaney and Kyra, a well-off, liberal, comfortable, somewhat self-congratulatory couple with a nice house in a gated area. The other is an undocumented couple from Mexico, Candido and his very young, pregnant wife America, who live in various lean-tos in a wooded area near the community where the other couple lives. The novel alternates between their two stories, and their lives intersect a couple of times, always problematically. The larger story is one of how communities deal with change, especially, in this case, the rising number of undocumented Mexican workers (or, often, would-be workers desperate for jobs). The workers suffer from poverty, prejudice, fear, the weather, and more. The wealthier families think of themselves as liberal, but gradually become more intolerant and angrier about the “invasion” of “their” territory. It is sad and even horrifying to see the increasing clashes, the increasing siege mentality, and the increasing willingness by the wealthier group to do anything to drive the outsiders out. This is of course not just a story of this particular community, but of many communities in the United States, and of the latest bumpy stage in the story of migration to the U.S. Boyle shows us the humanity of, and the weaknesses of, all the characters, and shows us all sides of the issue. The telling of the story is perhaps a bit schematic, but very powerful, as well as moving and frightening. Mercifully, there is a note of grace in the midst of crisis at the end of the novel, and readers will be grateful for it. But this moment of grace cannot cancel out the pain, suffering, confusion, and strife we have seen throughout the novel.

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