Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 355 pages; 1997.
So this particular Tom Coraghessan Boyle novel is my friend JB’s favourite novel of all time. I read it on the strength of his recommendation and knew, pretty much from the first line, that I was going to enjoy this critically acclaimed book. The writing is accomplished, the characterisation is superb, the plot is rivetting and the detail is like nothing I’ve ever read before, but it’s the moral message — without ever resorting to preaching or moralising — that elevates this book from the excellent to the extraordinary.
Set in America — California to be precise — the story is essentially about the haves and the have nots. There are two view points throughout, told in alternate chapters, which reveal the contrasts between the protectionist middle classes who live with a fortress mentality and the poverty-stricken illegal immigrants (from Mexico) who struggle to put food on their plate on a day-to-day basis despite the obvious and abundant wealth around them.
It all begins when Delaney Mossbacher, a stay-at-home house-husband who writes a naturalist column, knocks down a Mexican pedestrian, Candido, on a busy road near his home. Candido, shocked and unable to understand English, “refuses” any assistance offered by Delaney. Instead he accepts the $20 guilt money handed to him and limps off into the canyon he now calls “home” where his pregnant 17-year-old wife, America, awaits him.
The rest of the book follows the plight of Candido and America’s battle against deprivation, racism and the “law of the jungle”. Meanwhile, Delaney’s comfortable existence on a private estate is shaken by wild intruders – of both the human and animal kind – and his liberal left-wing ideas become slowly eroded because, when push comes to shove, all he wants to do is protect his family and his property.
The book, which moves along at an ultra-quick pace, is littered with ironies: Delaney’s upmarket estate comprising Spanish Mission-style houses has a Spanish name, Arroyo Blanco, but is out of bounds to anyone with a Spanish-sounding name; and Delaney loves the great outdoors and spends a lot of time hiking and camping, while Candido and America are forced to “camp” because they have nowhere else to go and can’t afford food let alone proper accommodation.
The contrasts between rich and poor are also stark: Delaney’s wife, Kyra, is so afraid that her dogs will be gobbled up by wild coyotes that she orders an 8-foot high fence to protect them, while America, destitute and living in the relative shelter of a canyon, has no money to seek the medical assistance she so desparately needs during her pregnancy; and, as Kyra sips her coffee and washes “down her 12 separate vitamin and mineral supplements with half a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice” each morning, Candido and America are reduced to eating wild birds, and later someone’s pet cat, just to stay alive.
While all this might sound a bit heavy, Boyle has such a great writing style that you never feel as though you are being hit over the head with any IMPORTANT message. In fact I chuckled quite a lot when reading this book, mainly at the ridiculousness of Delaney’s actions and his wife’s (I couldn’t help associating Kyra with Annette Bening’s character in American Beauty) and the sheer pomposity, holier-than-thou attitude of Arroyo Blanco’s residents.
But be warned: admid the laughter there will also be tears. There are two particular incidents in The Tortilla Curtain which broke my heart, they are so gut-wrenchingly, painfully sad.
I *ADORED* this book, and while it hasn’t usurped my own favourite novel of all time it has come pretty damn close! If you are looking for an intelligent read then this is one you shouldn’t miss.