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The Tortilla Curtain

The Tortilla Curtain (1995) is a novel by U.S. author T.C. Boyle about middle-class values, illegal immigration, xenophobia, poverty, and environmental destruction. Of the nine novels Boyle has written so far, The Tortilla Curtain has turned out to be his most successful. Boyle himself says that when it first came out it was

my most controversial novel. Because it dealt with a hot-button socio-political issue -- illegal immigration in Southern California -- many of the reviewers came into the book with strong prejudices. I took a good deal of abuse, including (my favorite instance) being called "human garbage" on a call-in radio show in San Francisco. As people have had a chance to think about the book more deeply over the course of the past few years, the furor has died down and The Tortilla Curtain has become a modern classic, by far my most popular title, widely read in high schools and universities around the country. The book consciously evokes the Steinbeck of The Grapes of Wrath, and opens with an epigraph from that novel:

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. [1] (http://www.tcboyle.com/public_htm/tortilla)

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

The Tortilla Curtain is the story of two couples who have nothing whatsoever in common except the fact that they live in the same area. The two people the quote from The Grapes of Wrath alludes to are Candido and America, two young Mexicans who have illegally entered the United States and who are dreaming of the good life in their own little house somewhere in California. Meanwhile, they are homeless and camping somewhere on the outskirts of a big city. This is exactly where the other couple, Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, have recently moved to -- to be closer to nature yet to be able at the same time to enjoy the amenities of city life. Health-conscious people, Kyra is a successful real estate agent while Delaney keeps house, looks after Kyra's son by her first marriage and writes a regular column for some environmentalist magazine.

The two couples' paths cross unexpectedly when Candido is hit and injured by Delaney driving his new car along the suburban road which leads to the Mossbachers' new home. For different reasons, each man prefers not to call the police or an ambulance, and Delaney gets off by giving Candido some dollars to be treated for his injuries. From that moment on, the lives of the two couples are constantly influenced by each other without any of the two sets of characters actually meeting the other one in person again.

After the accident, Candido's problems deepen. With America pregnant, his shame at not being able to get a job and procure a home and food for his family increases, especially when America decides to find some illegal work herself. At one point in the novel, they have to go through the trash cans behind a convenience store so as not to starve. At another, in front of the same shop, they are given a free turkey by some other customer who has just won it because it is Thanksgiving. When, back in their shelter, Candido starts roasting the bird, he inadvertently causes a fire which spreads so quickly that even the estate the Mossbachers live in has to be evacuated. Eventually, after America has given birth to her baby, the couple of course have no money to have the little girl examined by a doctor, and America is afraid that her new-born daughter might be blind.

While Candido and America are fighting for survival, the Mossbachers' problems are of an altogether different nature. Comfortably settled in their new home, they are faced with how cruel nature can be when their two spoiled puppies are killed by a coyote. Also, the majority of inhabitants of their exclusive estate feel increasingly disturbed and threatened by the presence of, as they see it, potentially criminal illegal aliens and vote for a wall to be built around the whole estate. Time and again in the novel, however, it is hinted at that the real perpetrators can be found inside rather than outside the projected wall: well-to-do people insensitive to the plight of the have-nots; WASP racists afraid of being overrun by Latinos and of the end of white supremacy; businesspeople employing illegal immigrants to maximise their own profit without caring for the social security of those who work for them; and convicts posing as honourable members of society.

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