T.Coraghessan Boyle

Before going to some comments on the recently-read but 15-year-old book “Tortilla Curtain,” this related thought:

Adios, Tom Tancredo.

Who knows?

Maybe the one-issue lightning rod is done.

He got knocked around pretty hard in Colorado in a three-way race for governor earlier this week.  So maybe his sharp-toned rhetoric will fade.  (By the way, I’ve met him a few times and he seems like a nice guy.  For a terrific insight into Tancredo, check out the section in Helen Thorpe’s book “Just Like Us” where she drives around Denver with Tancredo.)

And maybe Tancredo isn’t done. Seems like we live in a shrill time.  Shrill voices get the attention.  Tancredo said we should bomb Mecca, the spiritual center-of-the-universe to a billion Muslims, and yet he still commands attention.  Sometimes, I don’t get it.  His opponent in the race for Colorado governor didn’t have to run one negative ad against Tancredo (or the third opponent in the group).  The immigration issue didn’t get much traction.  (And If you wonder why there is no agreed-upon “solution” to the issue, read Ruben Navarrette’s insightful column this week.)

I think Tom Tancredo should read “Tortilla Curtain.”  It’s as fresh in 2010 as it was in 1995, when it first came out.

T.C. Boyle might have referenced cell phones if he had written this today and there’s also the give-away use of an out-dated Pepsi advertising slogan.  Otherwise, there’s nothing stale about “The Tortilla Curtain” and its portrayal of the immigration issue in one California community.

The opening line covers a lot of ground:

“Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces—the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye—but he wasn’t very successful.”

It’s like Boyle is saying “The Tortilla Curtain” is hardly about an abstract issue (immigration, for one).  It’s about something real. Personal. Human.

This is a human experience.

This is not an abstract political tussle.

“The Tortilla Curtain” is about the collision of opposing forces.  We smack off each other.

One human is behind the steering wheel, the other is a helpless pedestrian, hunched over. Like he’s almost prepared to get run over.  Yet we interact.  Immigrants (legal or not) and U.S. citizens rely on each other.

“The Tortilla Curtain” (what a great title, echoing Steinbeck and creating an image of a soft, meaningless divider made out of floppy white bread) is about human beings and how we treat each other and how we view each other as individuals and as a group.

The debate over the decision to erect a gate at the Arroyo Blanco Estates, where Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, call home, may as well be the discussion over whether to build a fence along the border of Mexico.  The wealth gap between the Mossbachers and the Mexican immigrants Cándido and América Rincón may as well be the gap between America and Mexico.  The view “down” into the ravine where the Rincóns are trying to eke out a living may be the same view most Americans take in their view of the dirty, scuffling invading interlopers.  Delaney bastes tofu kebabs with his “special honey-ginger marinade.”  Cándido and América  cook up fried eggs, chiles, roasted “gray birds” of some unknown variety and, what else, tortillas.

The sequence of events that leads to the canyon conflagration at the end is classic.  Cándido comes into possession of a free frozen turkey through an act of generosity and neighborliness.   It is Thanksgiving.  Afterall: what better day would there be to underscore the image of one group of immigrants being treated well by natives of the new land?  Cándido has gone inside a “changeless” supermarket where “there wasn’t a scent of food, not even a stray odor, as if the smell of a beefsteak or a cheese or even good fresh sawdust was somehow obscene.  The light was dead.”  He is the recipient of the same “naked stares of contempt and disgust.”  Yet Cándido comes in possession of a frozen turkey.  It’s “lying there frozen like a brick on the black conveyor belt” and two sharp-dressed guys can’t use it. So they give it to Cándido, even though they laugh at his incomprehension of the moment.  Back at camp, this frozen turkey needs a fire, of course, and he is thrilled to return to his wife with the prize food, this piece of Thanksgiving.  This symbol.  Soon, of course, the wind “plucked the fire out of its bed of coals and with a roar as loud as all the furnaces of hell set it dancing in the treetops.”

Furnaces of hell. Dancing. (Loved those images in the same sentence.)

Boyle’s writing alone is always a pleasure.  I prefer his purely imagined fiction like “Drop City” and his short stories compared to his attempt to re-create the lives of Frank Lloyd Wright or Dr. Alfred Kinsey.  (Although those were enjoyable, too.)  But “The Tortilla Curtain” is a classic because it covers so much ground and it’s so, well, timeless.

Must reading for all politicians who throw hand grenades on this issue.  We don’t need fear and loathing on this topic, fellas. We need some sober, clear-eyed leadership.  This might be a collision of opposing forces but there’s no need to turn a fender-bender traffic accident into murder.  Let’s pull the bumpers apart, step away.  And talk it out.

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