Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexican illegals Candido and America Rincon desperately cling to their vision of the American Dream as they fight off starvation in a makeshift camp deep in the ravine. From the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delaney into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.
I’ve read a few of Boyle’s books, he’s a consummate craftsman, comfortable and capable in the ambiguities of human discourse and interaction. Here, he applies that same skill and insight to the contentious issue of illegal immigration, race relations and the exploitation of migrant labour.
Delaney’s pretensions are a fantastic device and chapter by chapter, Boyle shows us the duplicity within him, how his idealism has feet of clay and that makes him unpleasantly involving. His justifications, his faux activism are shown and woven into the story to a perfect pitch. On the surface, he has a perfect life but as the book continues, he reveals himself to be odious and cowardly, but Boyle does not do him a disservice, in fact, he feels compellingly real and his actions are fascinating in light of how he sees himself versus how he actually is.
The migrant couple, Candido and Amercia, are noble in their suffering, striving to thrive through a gauntlet of ostracism, brutal poverty, exploitation and recrimination. Their scenes are upsetting without being vulgar. Boyle resists the romanticism of the migrant, and through his careful examination and observation, he shows us what they go through to get here, the primitive living conditions that they offer and how easily they become the apogee for racial prejudice and economic uncertainty. You can taste the despair, like grit between your teeth. Boyle resists the romantic impulse in favour of a deeper truth and an appreciation for the chaos of modern life, the small decisions and the grand passions that in lesser hands, would have devolved into doggerel or polemic. The time spent reading was an exercise in empathy and appreciation, even if it was not a happy book, it was profound and beautiful on every level.
Boyle has a lengthy body of work, he is a moving target in literature, and he evolves as he goes. The Tortilla Curtain is not an easy read, but it is beautiful, impassioned and elegant. He avoids the trite and the simplistic in favour of something richer and more involving. Pull it back and see for yourself, because you may learn something interesting about yourself.