California Dreaming

T. Coraghessan Boyle
The Tortilla Curtain

FROM D-LIST paparazzi to Proposition 187, the mythology of California is a familiar enough phenomenon that it should come as no surprise to anyone that a Minnesota college now offers a popular seminar on the topic. In measuring the foul moral climate of the nation's bellwether state, native authors from Steinbeck and West to Didion and Pynchon have established The Great Californian Novel as a sub-genre of the grail-like Great American Novel. T. Coraghessan Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain, the story of a hard-luck Mexican couple and a yuppie naturalist intersecting in the desert outside L.A., deserves recognition alongside the best of that California canon, tackling the state's most popular demonology of our political witching hour: immigration.

Delaney Mossbacher, a nature magazine essayist and "liberal humanist with an unblemished driving record and a freshly waxed Japanese car," accidentally runs down Cándido, a recently arrived Mexican squatting in the canyon below the highway. Unlike a similar accident in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, nothing much comes of it; Delaney first feels guilty, then angry (a familiar response in white America these days), and finally hands Cándido 20 bucks. He returns to writing essays about the ecosystem that he and his real-estate agent wife, Kyra, have conquered along with their neighbors in the luxurious Arroyo Blanco Estates. Predictably, Cándido and his young, pregnant wife América do not fare so well. He writhes around their campsite for a week, pisses red, and hallucinates. She looks for work at the labor exchange, and is groped, cheated, and assaulted.

Meanwhile, coyotes hop the Mossbacher's 6-foot fence and devour Kyra's dog. Thieves steal Delaney's Acura while he discovers more Mexicans soiling his canyon. And while Delaney writes essays about the inexorable coyote and tries to submerge his resentment of the opportunistic Mexican interlopers, the estate council, seduced by the fortress mentality, shuts the development in behind a guarded front gate. But just who builds these gates and fences? Cándido and his fellow illegals, of course.

While the shunned newcomers and brutally exploited labor of The Tortilla Curtain inevitably bring to mind The Grapes of Wrath, Boyle's sixth novel more closely resembles Russell Banks's Continental Drift, which interweaves accounts of a Haitian woman and a New England family and their doomed pursuit of the good life in Florida. But unlike Banks's earnest approach, Boyle is unwilling to achieve the self-abnegating that naturalism necessarily involves. As the third-person narration shifts from one character to another, there is always the unmistakable presence of the wry Mr. Boyle, messing with his camera lens while perched above their shoulders. A Mexican thug distributes flyers door-to-door for a meeting about estate security. Smirk. Cándido optimistically stews Delaney's gamey cat. Wink. A character named América. Nod.

At the same time, though, there are convincing accounts of América's mounting depression and Cándido's crushing failure. But Boyle's irony can have the (intended?) effect of constructing its own wall, divorcing the reader from the emotional core of the story. The finest achievement in Tortilla Curtain may be its alternating sympathy for the two nationalities--the way in which Boyle conjoins their separate fates in a form of cultural and environmental predestination. Everyone is a prisoner here. Delaney's xenophobic neighbors surround themselves with a wall, and Kyra's lobbying closes the labor exchange. Forced into a seedy Chicano neighborhood to look for work, Cándido is beaten with bats and loses everything. América's baby is near due. Coyotes leap the new 8-foot fence and snack on Kyra's other dog, while she looks at a more distant, yet unsettled canyon for the next development.

The real pessimism in Tortilla Curtain may not be the ineluctable machinery of Boyle's plot, capturing Cándido's and Delaney's California dreaming in the same canyon, grinding them together Acura-bumper-to-human-hip, and spitting them out, mangled. As Boyle makes clear (maybe a little too clear) in Delaney's essay on the predatory spread of the coyote, the failed mixing of Anglo and Chicano in the desert is a biological inevitability. Coyotes will leap paltry man-made barriers; droves of immigrants will slip through the porous web of the INS for the remote chance of something better. In the aftermath, civic virtue cedes to a Californian law of the jungle.

Ultimately, though, this fable is not exactly Darwinian--even as the fittest horde the wealth, build walls, and buy guns. Because in Boyle's final reckoning, everything yields to those casual environmental catastrophes, desirable only to rookie newscasters and FEMA planners: The siroccos, wildfires and mudslides that relegate all, equally, to the pastures of heaven. CP

T. Coraghessan Boyle reads at Macalester College's Weyerhaeuser Chapel Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; 699-0587.

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