Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Who Is My Neighbor?

The Tortilla Curtain
by T.C. Boyle

Wow. This book blew me away. I read it several weeks ago (that's how behind I am on my blogging), but I still find myself thinking about the story a lot. Don't know how I missed in in 1996 when it was published, but I guess I was not paying enough attention. No matter - it is at least as timely now as it was then, what with all the public debate on border control and illegal immigration. If you have not read this and are at all interested in those issues, you really should check this out. Boyle has captured the plight of the poverty stricken immigrant, as well as the fear, interior conflict, and hypocrisy of the prosperous native born Anglo.

Set in the Los Angeles area, The Tortilla Curtain shares us two parallel stories of people who live near each other and find their lives intersecting in surprising and uncomfortable ways. Delaney and Kyra are white liberals who live in a gated community and initially have a reasonably compassionate attitude toward the Mexican immigrants who are becoming ever more visible. Candido and America (oh, the irony of that name) are illegals hiding in the nearby canyon, picking up work where they can find it, and trying desperately to make a fresh start. Several unfortunate incidents conspire to push Candido and America back into the pit of despair every time they think they are about to get just the tiniest bit ahead. Their frustration and pain is heart wrenching. America is pregnant, and as the birth of their child draws nearer, she becomes more desperate and lonely. The forced isolation of these two people seems so unnecessarily cruel. Yes, they do break a few laws - stealing occasionally to get food being the main one. How many of us would not be driven to do the same if we were starving?

Delaney and Kyra are also pitiful characters in their own way. Due to the power of neighborhood group think, they morph from reasonably good hearted people (although privileged, self-centered, and clueless in a lot of ways) to maniacal, fearful NIMBYs. Delaney's transformation is especially sad, as he begins the story a reasonable person with a compassionate outlook. Like so many of us, as the immigrants encroach on his personal convenience (often through no fault of their own) he takes an ever dimmer view of them. It is fine for them to be hired to build a fence in his backyard, but their visible presence on street corners and in parking lots looking for work he comes to find unacceptable. The hate that infiltrates Delaney's mind as he starts to blame everything that goes wrong in his life on "the Mexicans" is frightening. We think we would never behave that way, but his thought processes and resulting actions are scarily possible. Most of us probably act in these ways every day without even realizing it.

Boyle has included some interesting parallel concerns for Delaney and Kyra that make their dear and hatred of the immigrants even more mysterious and sad. Delaney is an environment/nature writer with a deep reverence for creation (although neither he or Kyra seem particularly spiritual). At one point, Kyra gets into a heated confrontation with a stranger who leaves his dog locked in a car on a hot day. They both totally miss the disconnect between their concern for animals and nature and a lack of concern for fellow human beings living in squalor just a mile or two from their California mansion.

I will read this again, probably several times. It is one of the best narratives of a compelling social dilemma I have ever read. I am planning to preach about it later this summer, so may even post about it again relatively soon. One of the things that moved me the most was the grain of hope found in the final sentence.

Reverent Reader


At 6/15/10, 4:49 PM , Blogger Ruth said...

thanks for this.

At 7/27/10, 3:32 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read this, wow, what an amazing book, thanks for the review



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