Book Review: Tortilla Curtain - By T.Coraghessan

Pages: 12 (3755 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Literature  ·  Buy This Paper

SAMPLE EXCERPT:

[. . .] In fact, even if he did go to a doctor - which he couldn't afford in any event - "the man from La Migra - the Immigration - would be standing there with his twenty questions and his clipboard."

Another repeated image Boyle uses to paint pictures for the reader is the image of a cat. Right at the beginning of the novel (4), Delaney believes he hit something with the crudeness of a "bird-mauling cat." And on page 25, America gets up early and tries to leave their crude campsite, and "she was silent as a cat."

But Boyle's descriptive narrative in terms of his character development of Candido dips even below the animal species. First Boyle turns to vegetable species (24), in discussing the "crushed" left cheekbone, which was "staved in like the flesh of a rotting pumpkin." Then, secondly, Boyle sees Candido's beat-up face as looking like "one of those monsters that crawl out of moonlit graves in the movies." But, hey, "who cared how ugly he was al long as he can work?" Boyle offers, and of course, that is why Mexicans come to the U.S., for work (as part of the American Dream), not to look good.

The Character Delaney Mossbacker (contrasted with Candido)

While poverty-laden America and Candido are toughing it out in the brutally unwelcoming canyon environments (notably Topanga Canyon) around Los Angeles, Delaney Mossbacker, an affluent writer, is penning his monthly column for a magazine called Wide Open Spaces. And ironically, Delaney has been writing about the "flora and fauna of Topanga Canyon" (32).

To Candido (49) that very canyon, with its "little clearing by the stream," its "leaves" and "rocks" all seemed "unchanging, eternal, as dead as a photograph." And, living there in the canyon, Candido saw it as "a jail cell and he was a prisoner, incarcerated in his thoughts." In fact, Boyle continues, at least prisoners had an opportunity to read something, listen to a radio, a place to sit and "take a contemplative crap" - while for Candido, his prison was unchanging, and all he did was doze, wake up, and sleep again. There were no license plates to make, or rocks to break. Just a sun that was always "in the same place in the sky" (50).

Some of the juxtapositions of images and of characters in this novel are so obvious, they almost come across as didactic and a smidgen preachy, but nonetheless they are - in the main - appropriate and effective. For example, the things that depress Delaney are issues like the loss of habitat for the Florida manatee, the spotted owl, the panda and pine marten, and the "steady and relentless degradation of the environment" in general. "There were days when he worked himself into such a state he could barely lift his fingers to the keys..."

How ironic that Delaney can barely lift his rich fingers, and that Candido, who seems to avoid being depressed, even when struck by an automobile, can barely lift his battered and poverty-ridden body up off the cold dirt of the cold dirt canyon floor where he hides to avoid being deported.

Delaney's son Jordan - who "scuffed into the kitchen, cat at his heels" (there is that cat image again) - is six years old and "dedicated to Nintendo, superheroes and baseball cards." (The juxtaposition: Candido likely has never seen a Nintendo game; and Candido's son, or daughter, to be his first-born, was still in the womb of Candido's young wife, and faced huge struggles prior to even being born, through the fact of being the offspring of a homeless woman.)

And while Candido and his wife pick wild berries and eat irregularly and unhealthily, Kyra, Delaney's wife, "insisted on the full nutritional slate for her son every morning...." And that full slate included "fresh fruit, granola with skim milk and brewer's yeast," a "hi-fiber bar" and of course 'Vitamins" and "roughage."

Further contrasts between the families emerge as readers learn that Kyra is a successful real estate agent, and the language to describe her life goes like this: (35) "I'm presenting two offers this morning...I've got a buyer with cold feet on that Calabasas property - with escrow due to close in eight days..." Meanwhile, the language used by Boyle to describe America (48), ties Candido's wife in with real estate, all right, but at the other end of the totem pole from Kyra: "[Candido] kept picturing [America] in some rich man's house, down on her knees scrubbing one of those tiled kitchens with a refrigerator the size of a meat locker...and the rich man watching her ass as it waved in the air and trembled with the hard push of her shoulders." vivid contrast between the two families is offered by Boyle (57) as first, America is waiting for the chance to be offered work, suffering through the humility of abject poverty and homelessness ("She sat there from dawn till noon and she didn't get work" and "walked aimlessly around the lot."). Next, meanwhile, while poor America begs for a chance from dawn till noon, Kyra (68) pulls her car up in front of a "big and airy" house at 11:15 A.M. The house has a marble entrance hall, six bedrooms, pool, maid's room and guesthouse." This house is likely to sell for six and a half million, while if American earned six and a half dollars, she and her injured husband could eat some food that had nutritional value to it.

Yet another contrast - and irony - in this book occurs (118-120) when Delaney's car had been stolen, or towed, and Delaney winds up walking uphill - instead of driving in luxury - on a road that "wasn't designed for pedestrians." So he hops the guardrail and "plows through the brush" which causes "burrs and seedheads" to get caught in his sox. And moreover, annoying horns "blared" and "tires screeched" into his ears. (Those horns, screeching tires, burrs and seedheads of course are just another part of live for Candido and his wife.)

Worse yet, poor Delaney, while waiting for his wife to call back, had to sit "on the curb in front of the pay phone in a litter of Doritos bags and candy wrappers" for "ten agonizing minutes" - a far cry from the lifetime of putting up with litter that Candido endured as part of his reality.

And as Candido himself could easily be described as the "walking dead," on page 146 Boyle writes that the police "had taken the report [of Delaney's stolen car] with all the enthusiasm of the walking dead..."

Literature Review of The Tortilla Curtain

Most - though not all - critics enjoyed / appreciated Boyle's book, which is certainly not unique to this work. A few of the journal articles discovered in research for this paper will be reviewed in the paragraphs below.

What Boyle is actually revealing in his novel (Brzezinski 1996) is the "cultural collision in Southern California," the "brutal reality" of a land that either denies Candido and America's existence or "seeks to make them invisible." And as to those Candidos of the world who would come here to work, and then send their meager earnings home to Mexico to help relatives steeped in brutal poverty, "Their tragedy is that they ask for so little, yet receive even less," writes Brzezinski. The denial of human and economic rights to aliens takes several forms in Boyle's novel: "building a wall to keep undesirables out, rousting them off street corners as nuisances, laughing at their poor English."

And, to boot, Brzezinski continues, "Ironically, this abhorrence is fundamentally on aesthetic rather than behavioral grounds." The loathing of illegals in the novel is not because they are "taking American jobs" or committing crimes, but in fact because they "mar the beauty of the landscape" with their "rag-tag clothes and pathetic possessions." The real crime is they are "bad for property values," which says a lot about how much some Americans live and think.

In a Migration World Magazine article (Spencer 1996), the writer states that while the Boyle book "has heft, its story is slight..." Spencer goes on to give Boyle credit for his "first rate" job in "capturing the terror of looking for work in an alien society..." Spencer also believes Boyle is "convincing, even stirring," in the telling of the Candido and America story and through those characters exposing "both society's injustices and the cold implacability of the privileged classes..."

However, Spencer continues, Boyle "undoes himself" by diving his "considerable narrative and stylistic gifts" between the Rincons' story and Delaney's story - "a rather contemptible yuppie couple whose deeply unremarkable experiences are set in opposition to the Rincons." Why is Boyle "undone" by his use of contrasting chapters, which jump back and forth from the Rincons to the Delaneys? A novel with a "dual structure" takes great risks, Spencer asserts, because a reader "will fasten on one of the stories… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Tortilla Curtain - By T.Coraghessan."  Essaytown.com.  June 10, 2004.  Accessed July 22, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/tortilla-curtain-tcoraghessan/6687117.