Audiobook Contemporaries: The Tortilla Curtain
Thrill, Chills and Spills in Topanga Canyon
Most of my audiobook listening the past couple of years has been focused on what is considered literary fiction by authors that are universally recognized as the most influential in history of the novel: Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Updike, Cheever, Bellow, Walker Percy, Graham Greene et al. Of the contemporary authors, most of the novels I have read have been by the big prizewinners: Diaz, Ford, Franzen, Denis Johnson, Jeffrey Eugenides , Paul Auster, Roberto Bolano. And now T.C. Boyle.
It wouldn’t surprise me if T.C. Boyle has outsold every other contemporary author on my list, if only because of his prodigious output: 14 novels and over 100 short stories. After reading The Tortilla Curtain and snippets of other work, his output is not surprising; the stories flow out of him in a voice so conversational and natural it’s like he has a direct conduit from his thoughts through the keyboard and onto the page. As a result Boyle's work is easily accessible by a wide range of readers, and if any of the novels I've read for the program could be characterized as "pop" fiction, The Tortilla Curtain would be the winner.
With or without the "pop" label, it is a hell of an arresting novel, full of hair-raising violence and disaster, profound heartache, subtle irony and as many twists and turns as Topanga Canyon Road. Boyle manipulates the parade of bummers as if the story was being distributed in serial in a monthly magazine. Like a Dickens novel, each chapter ends with more traps being laid, bombs being planted, bait being cast; you can’t help but read on. Or listen on. ( I listened to an audiobook version that Boyle himself narrates, and he does a remarkably good job. He even won an Audie Award for best narration by an author. If he has one drawback compared to professional voice actors, it’s that he reads too fast, which just makes the frenetic pace of this story more nerve-rattling.)
It also falls into the category of "social novel", as The Boston Globe characterizes it on the back cover. So it has that Dickensian tone in the way it makes it’s case for social justice involving the plight of illegal immigrants in LA County. (My daughter was required to read the novel in her 10th grade high-school Social Studies class as a way to stimulate discussion around illegal immigration, which in our community is as much of an issue as it was in L.A. County in the mid-nineties.) There’s also a bit of “The Grapes of Wrath” thematically, or perhaps a rebuttal to Grapes of Wrath, since the novel is preceded by Steinbeck’s infamous quote about Mexican farmworkers:
“They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.”
The Rock Star of Writers
Choose Your Stereotype
Boyle’s narrator pulls no punches in letting us know who’s right and who’s wrong in the debate: Candido and his young wife America are the poor, downtrodden Mexican heroes and the hypocritical naturalist Delaney Mossbacker and his materialist real-estate agent second wife Kyra are the villains, along with all the other white folk in the Arroyo Blanco Estates up Topanga Canyon. The white folks stereotypical point of view regarding the immigrants is standard fare:
“...the more you give them, the more they want, and the more of the there are…Why should we be providing jobs for these people when we’re looking at a ten percent unemployment rate right here in California -- and that’s for citizens. Furthermore, I’m willing to bet you’ll see a big reduction in the crime rates once the thing’s [the labor exchange where the contractors pick up the day laborers] closed down….No offense, but it’s beginning to look like fucking Guadalajara or something down there.” (p. 192)
Even though it’s pretty clear that we’re to be rooting for the Mexicans, they and their brethren are not without major flaws, just the way the white folk have some admirable qualities. But for the most part there’s not a likeable character in the bunch, with the possible exception of the pathetic 17-yr old pregnant senora, whose strength and courage push the limits of credibility. Nobody’s perfect, of course, and the horrors these Mexicans face at the hands of the white folk and the hands of their own people are common on the nightly news.
That doesn’t make me want to read about them over and over, and eventually the despicable cast and all their woeful dramatics makes the reading/listening experience more depressing than real life. If it wasn’t for Boyle’s masterful prose, storytelling talent and the coyote that gobbles up Kyra’s lap dogs I might have pitched the book halfway through.
"It [the coyote] was inside the fence, pressed to the ground, a fearful calculation in its eyes as it stalked the grass to where Osbert [the dog] lay sprawled in the shade of a potted palm, obliviously gnawing at the rawhide bone...he watched in absolute stupefaction as the animal swept across the grass in five quick strides, snatched the dog up by the back of the neck and hit the fence on the fly." (p. 194)
The coyote is the natural equivalent to the Mexicans; a creature of the earth that knows how to survive in the harshest conditions, just like Candido and America camped on the banks of Topanga Creek. I found it odd that the narrator doesn't mention the fact that California was once part of Spain, and then Mexico, until only 175 years ago or thereabouts. Like the coyote, the Mexicans figure out how to survive when their native territory is encroached upon, though in the novel it's housecats that Candido captures and makes into stews, not dogs.
The Tortilla Curtain is one of those novels where the social message takes precedence over any kind of close character study and related personal growth or change. That’s not to say the character’s attitudes don’t change, but the changes are just fleeting moments of happiness, or awareness, or, in Delaney's case, paranoia; it’s the misery and hate that remains consistent throughout and I think the novel suffers for it.
Like a 14th century morality play, the characters in The Tortilla Curtain are blatant stereotypes, and not very imaginative ones at that. They’re obviously intended to represent a “type” of person, rather than an individual. Kyra, in particular, is unflinchingly one-dimensional in her upscale working woman on-the-go existence, where sex as a health aid is in the same department as a regular bowel movement. The supporting cast is even more stereotypical, from the gum-chomping bright-eyed psychocreep Mexican to the financier under house arrest for insider trading to the nauseating car dealer: Boyle has hired them to look and act a part that the reader can pigeonhole in an instant so the proselytizing isn’t muddied by complex characters.
The omniscient narrator describes the setting, the action and the characters in vivid, captivating language that sticks to the relevant details and only occasionally stumbles over far-fetched metaphors. Since the narrator’s focus is on the primary conflict between the rich, hypocritical Americans and the struggling Mexicans, Boyle lets the narrator speak on behalf of Delaney, Kyra, Candido and America in second person, addressing the reader directly with rhetorical questions and clearly centering the reader’s experience in their experience, and keeping all the other characters at arm’s length.
The only problem with this set up is that the internal voices of the characters are all the same. Their wants, needs, opinions, observations, and concerns are different, but the way in which they express their thoughts doesn’t vary. Each engages in an internal dialogue, asking inner questions in an identical fashion. As a result, the prose gets unbearably repetitive, almost careless in it's obvious attempt to hold the reader close.
"In a daze, Candido drifted away from the group gathered round the pickup, the weight of the news like a stone crushing his chest. Why not kill himself now and get it over with?" (p. 199)
"He was being paranoiac, that wall -- you couldn't hold on to everything, could you?" (p. 155)
"Sure this wasn't as busy as the canyon road, but if they'd got the first car, what was to stop them from getting this one too?" The fact that is was quieter out here just played into their hands, didn’t it?” (p. 155)
You can open the book to any page and find these annoying editorial comments and rhetorical asides, and I can't help but wonder why Boyle does it. They're distracting, aren't they? It would be a better novel without them, wouldn't it? The other annoyances are the rationalizations the characters are constantly making:
"Finally she got up from the chair and hurried across the room - she had to rinse her hands at least, to take the sting away, no one would deny her that..." (p. 132)
"...she had to give it up. She couldn't take it a second longer. No one could..." (p. 133)
The movie trailer
And Then it Ends
Throughout the story I kept getting the feeling that the exaggerated hypocrisy of the white folk and the 3D misery of the immigrants, once established, was going to have to resolve itself in some sort of believable fashion to turn the story into something more than an indictment of white Americans in general and a glorification of these two particular illegal immigrants. But in the end, despite Boyle's incredibly vivid description of the mudslide and the four people being swept to what seems like certain death, the story fizzles. I felt as if Boyle or perhaps the editors said "okay, it's 350 pages. Let's end it now."
In the end, when Candido rescues Delaney from the flood after losing his own week-old blind baby, it seems like nothing more than the normal, humane thing to do. Though Delaney has had nothing but despicable thoughts about the illegals, having been transformed from a liberal humanist to a gun-toting bigot by the "bad" Mexicans and, ironically enough, his white neighbor's hateful and bigoted son, he hasn't deliberately or directly hurt Candido or America, outside of the opening scene of the novel when he hit Candido with his car on Topanga Canyon Road. Nonetheless, Candido has every reason to fear the crazy red-headed gabacho, especially when he chases him to his hillside shanty with a gun, but he has no reason to let him drown in the flood.
So the big hearted, noble and heroic act by Candido at the end seems like a convenient way to summarize the story's message: despite the unfortunate events that have befallen the luckless Mexican, he bears no malice and holds no grudge against his tormentors. The only problem is the guys that raped his wife and ripped him off are his own people, not whites like Delaney. So is it really such a big deal that he rescues a gabacho in the end?
“The dark water was all around him, water as far as he could see, and he wondered if he would ever get warm again. He was beyond cursing, beyond grieving, numbed right through to the core of him. All that, yes. But when he saw the white face surge up out of the black swirl of the current and the white hand grasping at the tiles, he reached down and took hold of it.” (p. 355)
That’s the last sentence, and to me it feels like a careless, slapdash, convenient way to end a story that had run out of disasters and had so over-milked the stereotypical behavior of the characters that it had no place left to go. And it's indescribably disappointing, because Boyle's prose - the pacing, the variation in line length, the vivid metaphor, even the second person intrusions (were they used more judiciously) are a joy to read. As I said earlier, his voice seems to flow effortlessly from his brain to the page, which makes the reading (and listening) a true pleasure. There is much to be learned from his action-packed, image-rich style, and there’s no question that he’s to be applauded for bringing the immigration conundrum into such stark relief.
This is the only T.C. Boyle novel I’ve read and I don't want to generalize about his importance as an author of novel-length literary fiction. I've heard that, like John Cheever, his sweet spot is the short story. Makes sense, given the repetition, or thinly disguised “variations of a theme” he employs in The Tortilla Curtain to stretch it to 350 pages. I can only say that compared to all of the other novels I've listened to in the last year or so, even including those that I haven’t liked, The Tortilla Curtain isn't even in the same league.