The Tortilla Curtain – T.C. Boyle
Delaney is a writer living in southern California with his new wife and step-son. He calls himself a pilgrim because he moved from the east coast, and he sees himself as a transplanted person with a unique perspective to notice to local flora and fauna because it is all new to him. His life focuses on the patterns of nature, and his lifestyle in suburban California takes on the humanist liberal perspective that seems founded on everything equal, organic, and helpful. What the humanist liberal perspective actually means is challenged when the neighborhood he lives in considers the idea of building both a gate and a fence to protect those inside and keep all sources of trouble outside. These political challenges become a personal struggle when Delaney hits a Mexican with his car. Candido, an illegal immigrant looking for work, camps in the valley with his pregnant wife. Having left his village in shame, he knows he cannot return, but he also knows he cannot remain where he is without work. He struggles daily to find food for his wife, but the outside sources working against him – la migra, drought, and general racism – are almost impossible to overcome. Even when all hope is lost, he cannot turn away from his responsibility to those around him. Delaney and Candido lead parallel lives that occasionally intersect as they struggle with what it means to live in the world they inhabit.
On the surface, “The Tortilla Curtain” seems more concerned with binaries than anything else. Native plant species vs. invasive species. The dark uncertainty of the night vs. the light of day when everything can be laid bare. Inside the neighborhood vs. outside the neighborhood. There are plenty of metaphors to find and analyze, but the effect of all these metaphors is to show where the binary doesn’t actually exist and these opposing forces intersect. Delaney and Candido lead mirror lives, in that their lives are completely different, but ultimately they struggle with the same issues. As Delaney wrestles with his entrenched habits, Candido struggles to find certainty in a constantly changing world. The differences built into each character encompass the entire range of human experience, and Boyle incisively shows how the essential aspect of human experience is to incorporate change and difference. Boyle’s writing is unforgiving, unapologetic, and spot on, as he lays bare human emotions and motivations.
I absolutely recommend this book. Although it is horribly depressing, it is also heartbreakingly inspiring. It shows what the world really is, but also what it can be like when people do actually help each other.