Sunday, 7 June 2015

Book of the Month: Tortilla Curtain (T.C. Boyle)

T.C. Boyle’s 1995 novel, The Tortilla Curtain, starts on a dramatic note. Delany Mossbacher, ‘a liberal humanist’, while driving his ‘freshly waxed Japanese car with a personalised number plate’, hits a man. The man he hits is a dark little Mexican called Candido Rincon, who has illegally entered America with his 17-year old pregnant wife, (also called) America. 
The vividly (and floridly) described opening is one of the several bravura set-pieces in Boyle’s novel, which, while it’s not without flaws, makes a compelling reading.

In alternate chapters the reader learns about the lives of Delany and Candido as their lives—to the horror of both of them—collide repeatedly.
Delany’s is a privileged existence. He lives in a hilltop ubermensch community north of California. He writes newspaper columns in the local rag on nature and environment, which brings in some money, but which is inadequate to support his lifestyle that includes driving posh cars and eating in posh restaurants. The bread-winner of the family is Delany’s estate agent wife, Kyra, who earns eye-watering commissions by selling houses straight out of big budget Hollywood films.  Originally from New York, Delany believes himself to be a liberal. He is none too happy when other householders in the community, fearful that the stateless hordes crossing the borders from Mexico would wander into their rarefied world, want to erect first a gate and then a wall around the estate. He is forced to change his opinion when a coyote snatches their two pet dogs. Kyra is getting concerned, in the meanwhile, that the properties on her portfolio might lose their values because of the slow but relentless encroachment of the foreigners (that is Mexicans) who have taken to hanging around on the streets in the hope of obtaining manual work. Kyra and Delany are both liberal; they understand the plight of the immigrants—so they tell each other—but (they both agree) there comes a point when you have to draw a line in the sand. They do not want homeless Mexicans who have no discernible assets other than perhaps strong backs to carry heavy loads—which, as the president of the community points out, is superfluous in America as machines can do all the work more efficiently and quickly—cluttering the idyllic existence they have carved out for themselves, away from the city.

So that’s the life of one couple, Delany and Kyra Mossbacher: white, upper-middle-class, and privileged, enjoying a lifestyle that involves attending evening do’s with similarly privileged white families, worrying about the environment and obsessing about the effect of unchecked immigration on the country to which their ancestors migrated from Europe a century ago but which they have come to view rightfully as their own. This is a family that starts hyperventilating if their usual morning cereal with exactly the right amount of fibre is out of stock at the supermarket. Giving credit card donations to worthy causes is the extent of their social responsibility, an acceptable penance for their consumerist lifestyle.
In stark contrast to the Mossbachers’ are the lives of the other protagonists of the novel: Candido and America Rincon (no surprises, there). Candido must be the most unfortunate Mexican to have washed up in America. Nothing—absolutely nothing—goes right for the poor sap from page one, when he is hit by Delaney’s car, and the ‘liberal humanist’ (instead of doing the decent thing and taking him to the nearest casualty, and perhaps calling the police) gives him twenty dollars to go away. Which Candido duly does. Candido and his pregnant wife America are holing out in the bush in the canyon adjacent to Mossbacher’s community. The list of disasters engulfing Candido is longer than Marathon: since he can’t work after the collision with Mossbacher’s car, America goes out to find a job. She finds a job but also discovers that the gabacho who gives her the job also wants to explore the inside of her thighs. When Candido finally gets the job she is raped by a lowlife vagrant (a Mexican). Their hideout is vandalized from time to time by white youths. The jobs are not easy to get by—a case of too many illegal immigrants competing for too few jobs and getting exploited in the process—which means the couple is frequently facing starvation. When Candido does earn some money he is mugged and beaten. While cooking on a makeshift fire in the bush he sets the whole canyon on fire. America gives birth to a daughter who is most probably blind but he can’t risk taking her to see a doctor lest he gets deported back to Mexico where there are even fewer jobs. When Candido miraculously survives the fire and the flood that follows he is confronted by a pistol-wielding Delany Mossbacher, who is losing his grip on his perspective (and marbles) in his (Candido’s)hideout. (I could go on, but I think you have got the drift.) The reader can’t say that Boyle didn’t warn him early on of the calamities that would befall luckless Candido: ‘his whole life was a headache, his whole stinking and worthless pinche vida—but never like this.’ And sure enough, he is (to paraphrase another TC Boyle character from another novel) hooked, landed, scaled, gutted, stuffed, roasted, chewed, digested, and shat out by the deeply unsympathetic, racist system.

If you have formed the impression that the plot and the structure of the novel are formulaic and predictable, you wouldn’t be far from truth. There is no subtlety to the novel. I think that is deliberate on part of Boyle; he wants to shock the reader; the differences in the lives of the haves and the have-nots are presented starkly with all the force of a sledgehammer. Boyle obviously has decided that the subject matter of the novel is such that hyperbolic, high octane drama is needed to make the impact he hopes to make with his novel about an issue that encourages highly polarised debates.

The narrative assumes a heavily ironic tone while describing situations involving the rich and precious Mossbachers with left wing pretentions. Delany Mossbacher has infinite love for the nature. He laments, for example, the relentless encroachment by humans on the natural habitats of wild animals like the coyotes that, he feels, are forced to leave the canyon in search of food, and kill the domestic pets. He is distressed when other residents of the community propose to build a wall around the estate because he is concerned that his easy access to the canyon would be cut off. Delany’s love for the flora and fauna of the region does not extend to the fellow humans if they have entered his country illegally in search of better life. They are a blot on the landscape; and, towards the end of the novel, in a grotesque twist, this ‘liberal humanist’ mutates into a frenzied hater of immigrants (in this case Mexicans) and embarks on a semi-deranged stalking of the hapless Mexican couple with a gun. His wife, Kyra, who is proud of her liberal credentials, has no qualms in calling the authorities to get rid of the Mexican labourers who gather in the hope that they would be picked up for manual labour by the local farmers because she does not want the daily gaggle of the riffraff to bring down the prices of the properties she happens to be selling in the area.

Boyle does not have much love for the Mossbachers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he holds them in contempt; for he spends a lot of time developing their characters and inhabiting their psyches. His skill lies in the fact that while the reader may not have much sympathy for their actions he understands where they are coming from, and, as their stance towards the immigrants hardens into barely concealed xenophobia, what the reader experiences (at least I did) is not disgust, but sadness. Boyle does not glorify the noble poverty of the Mexican couple, the Rincons, and their similarly displaced brethrens. They too are capable of casual cruelty towards each other.
Boyle seems to have certain ambivalence towards Candido’s apparently unending (and, you can’t help feeling, losing) battle for survival. As he totters from one calamity to another, his strife is narrated in a manner that instigates detachment rather than pathos.

Boyle’s prose is scintillating. His ear for cadence and eye for detail are astonishingly acute. The novel starts with a bang and fairly buzzes throughout its three-hundred-plus pages with spectacular –at times apocalyptic—images. You can’t but be in awe for the sheer force and vigour of Boyle’s writing.
The Tortilla Curtain is the second T.C. Boyle novel I have read. The first was The Road to Wellville. Brimming with odd-ball characters, The Road to Wellville was a devilishly comic novel that oozed Boyle’s slightly peculiar humour on every page. Tortilla Curtain, too, is a satire: a heavy satire that lacks the levity of The Road to Wellville, but not less readable for that.