The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle

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Reviewed by Alan Cogan

Cogan’s Reviews

This isn’t a book about Mexico. Rather, it’s about Mexicans in California right now. It explores the issue of illegal immigration by examining the lives of four characters – two very well-off Californians, Delaney Mossbacher, a nature writer, and his real estate agent wife, Kyra, and a Mexican couple, Cándido Rincón, and his pregnant 17 year old wife, América, both illegal immigrants. The Mossbachers live in an exclusive, secure community overlooking Topanga Canyon. Guess who lives in near starvation in the bushes at the bottom of canyon.

As the author describes them, “the Mossbachers were joggers, nonsmokers, social drinkers, and if not full blown vegetarians, people who were conscious of their intake of animal fats. Their memberships include the Sierra Club, Save the Children, the National Wildlife Federation and the Democratic Party.” The Rincóns simply have nothing going for them. In fact, one wonders how much misery two people can possibly endure, not only from the U.S. authorities but from their own people and from those gringos who are only too ready to exploit and cheat them.

The story begins with a chance encounter when Delaney almost runs down Cándido in his car. This triggers a chain of events that leads to an even more dramatic confrontation. The story switches back and forth between the two couples and, in the process, looks at the issue of illegal immigration from seemingly every point of view.

Boyle is particularly good on the ironies involved in the situation. Delaney is a nature writer, with a great interest in coyotes, which also inhabit the canyon. His love of wild animals however doesn’t extend to the human animal – particularly the illegal variety. And Kyra, for all her liberalism, doesn’t hesitate to call the authorities when she sees Mexican laborers gathering to be picked up for work by local farmers close to the exclusive housing development where she is selling.

Boyle has done his research well. His Mexicans are totally convincing, even though he seems to have more fun with his American characters. The Mexicans are real people with feelings, memories and fully described lives, not only their lives in America but the lives they left south of the border. One really feels their fear, their despair, their anger as they pursue the “American dream”, which the Mossbachers are living to the hilt. At the same time one also feels the fear of the Americans about all these strangers appearing amongst them.

A couple of Californian friends found this novel “depressing”, but I really think they meant it’s a little too close to the truth. It is a tragedy but it’s not without its satirical and comic moments and the pace never flags for a moment.

The Tortilla Curtain
by T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Penguin Books. 1995. 355 pages.

To order from Amazon Books: Paperback

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Published or Updated on: July 15, 2001 by Alan Cogan © 2008
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