“Did you know that the U.S. accepted more immigrants last year than all the other countries of the world combined — and that half of them settled in California? And that’s legal immigrants, people with skills, money, education. The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us . . .”
The term “social novel” tends to send most American critics running for the hills. It has come to imply a certain triteness, I think — some sort of vague abstraction that many see as having ironically died with the A-bomb, and ultimately distracting from the serious business of fiction writing. After all, shouldn’t all novels serve some sort of social function? It’s a question which brings us to the age-old debate between critics of the formalist and cultural poetic schools of literary criticism: what purpose does fiction serve? Are its motives didactic, instructional, and irrevocably indebted to the zeitgeist which birthed it? Or, does our understanding and appreciation of the text begin and end with the front and back cover?
T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is a thoroughly convincing, and often very painful, account of race relations in America. Examining the sometimes jarring discrepancies between thought and action, between ideas and their execution, Boyle effortlessly reminds us that politics are inescapable: they latch to our every move, are reflected in every minute decision we make, and — sometimes in very violent, cruel ways — collide with the sober realities of our increasingly fractured, paradoxically global society.
Delaney, one of the novel’s central figures, is a white male of priveledge. He’s a Sierra Club Liberal who prides himself in his ultimate breadth of empathy and understanding, in his connectedness with our precious and quickly-fleeting biosphere, in the progressive ideals which shape his view of America as a beacon for peace, love and understanding. After hitting an undocumented immigrant with his car — Candido, the anti-hero of the novel’s intercalary chapters — Delaney, after paying off the Spanish-speaking homeless man and leaving him to what seems to be certain death, is forced to address what is essentially an American dilemma: how do we reconcile the ideological pillars on which our country was founded (Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. . .) with the social realities of our treatment of minorities, “documented” or not?
Why did [Delaney] keep thinking of shadowy black-and-white movies, men in creased hats leaning forward to light cigarettes . . . Because he was covering himself, that’s why. Because he’d just left that poor son of a bitch there alongside the road . . . and because he’d been glad of it, relieved to buy him off with his twenty dollars’ blood money. And how did that square with his liberal-humanist ideals?
The Tortilla Curtain, often bordering on a pastiche of American “dust bowl fiction,” gets most of its mileage from playing off of Steinbeck’s form in The Grapes of Wrath. Like Steinbeck’s mammoth opus, Boyle’s novel makes no bones about its perceived job of providing social commentary. It’s unmistakably clear, through the heavy-handedness of the novel’s symbolic and pairing devices (a page straight from Steinbeck’s often criticized literary playbook) that Boyle wants us to use The Tortilla Curtain as an implement by which to consider the world around us. We should struggle, along with Delaney, to ask ourselves what it means to live in a free and democratic society — and what, after all, is less democratic than an impervious wall surrounding the American border?
Of course, the novel is more than the sum of its parts. Don’t expect a 300-page lecture on immigration legislation, or a constantly winking re-write of Candide, for that matter. Expect instead a deeply rewarding, compulsively readable, and uncompromisingly human and heart-wrenching affair which — while it may do little to answer that age-old question of purpose in fiction writing — renders in clean, muscular prose the very questions which will essentially define us and our relationship with the rest of the world.