Tuesday, June 14, 2011

T.C. Boyle: The Tortilla Curtain

T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain" is the first fiction book I've read in a Long Time, and it was worth it. I wish I could tell my mom that it was a piece of light reading, but it wasn't. It was a fast read, and well written, but it was harsh, and has so far stuck with me pretty much all the time (I finished it a few days ago), probably because it hit close to home. One of the two main characters is a upper class white dude who prides himself/makes his living on his liberal sentiments, and even is willing to stick his neck out for his environmental beliefs. When he's actually confronted by the reality of what he stands for, though, he finds out that he can't walk the talk at all. Piece by piece his image of himself crumbles. This hits home because I talk a big talk, on themacinator and in my life, and I have a pretty strong idea of who I am, or who I want to be. I acknowledge my racism as I struggle to be anti-racist, but the fact that I acknowledge my racism is hard, since sometimes it's a whole lot bigger than I'd like it to be. I find myself being a snob in a class sense, and I drive more than I want to. I could go on. T.C. Boyle doesn't let his character go on, and he doesn't let the reader let him off the hook, either.

The white dude lives on a hill and hits a Mexican immigrant who has crossed the border (the tortilla curtain, which strikes me as an amazing image) and is living illegally in a protected wildlife area with his car. Get it- living in the hills and the flatlands? The immigrant is almost killed, and the rich white man struggles with his conscience, trying to forget it after paying the man $20. One by one, the hill dweller's principles are challenged. He has to build a fence around his yard to protect his wife's fluffy dogs from coyotes, though he is a nature writer and finds the idea of fences horrific. He loses his open spaces to the home owners association, though in theory, he believes in America as land-of-the-free. And the immigrant that he has run over becomes the face of the evil that is changing him, or at least his perception of himself.

Meanwhile, the immigrant is living a crappy life far from the American dream in the prison of his broken body and the ravine he has secreted himself and his wife in. He is devestated, but too proud to admit it. He is insulted that his wife is even thinking of making money, and takes out his rage and impotence on her. Everything he does seems to fail, out of bad luck, he believes. His whole life has been a story of misfortune and things gone wrong. He even drags a young pregant wife into the mess. Is he a metaphor for Mexico/Mexicans? Or for the havoc immigrants wreak on unsuspecting (white) Americans? Whatever he stands for, he's a good foil for rich dude, who becomes what he hated. I suppose he proves a point if you were a reader who already hated the liberal-minded man on the hill. On the other hand, if you're someone like me, who feels sympathy but can't really know empathy for the man living in the flats, he calls us out: it's not enough to talk the talk, and we'll never be able to walk the walk. Finding a common ground, a meaningful path is something even fiction can force on us.