The Tortilla Curtain

book by T.C. Boyle

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

The publication date on this book is 1995 but this novel is still as relevant and as controversial today as it was 17 years ago. Tortilla Curtain is the story of two couples—the undocumented workers América and Cándido, and the well-to-do Californians real-estate agent Kyra and environmental writer Delaney.

Boyle has structured this novel as a satirical and brutal mirror. For every action on each couple’s part, the other couple experiences a less-than or greater-than reaction, in a strange and violent  balancing act between the two cultures. The opening event is Delaney hitting Cándido (accidently) with his car on his way home on the winding canyon road to his soon-to-be walled and gated community. This sets off a chain of tragedy that neither party can foresee.   Cándido refuses to go to the hospital and Delaney throws Cándido $20 to salve his guilty conscious.  Boyle then sets up an intricate chessboard of a story where each couple continues to lose things and every loss is diluted in the white upper class couple and magnified in the ill-fated and Job-like América and Cándido.

Cándido is sick and broken from the accident and Delaney’s car is broken. Very soon after the accident, one of Kyra’s pampered dogs is captured in their backyard and eaten by a coyote. América ventures up from the canyon where the immigrants are “camping” and tries to get a job at the job exchange. She is pregnant and a teenager. Bad-luck has dogged Cándido and América throughout their journey north—their coyote (the man helping them cross into the United States) was corrupt and they were beaten and robbed at the border. América gets a job working with toxic chemicals scrubbing kitschy Buddhas for some un-named man, who also tries to grope her. A few days later, her boss forgets to give her gloves and América can barely stand the chemical burn of scrubbing the Buddhas.

Also in Boyle’s balancing act are two teens from Kyra and Delaney’s neighborhood causing trouble for the undocumented workers staying in the canyon. They tear apart Cándido and América’s camp, ruin América’s only good dress and paint “gang sign” graffiti on the new gate to whip up fear and mistrust of Mexicans. Two other undocumented workers scrawl graffiti on Kyra’s favorite for-sale house. These two characters rape América on her way home from work and give her gonorrhea which causes her girl-child, when she is born, to be blind.

Another fascinating mirror in the book is that a white-collar criminal is under house arrest in one of the huge houses in Kyra and Delaney’s neighborhood. As they raise the gate and the seven-foot stucco fence in the neighborhood to keep the Mexicans, coyotes, snakes and scorpions out, they seem to not care at all that they are walling this criminal in. No one seems to be concerned about what he has done to warrant house arrest for three years because he has maids and catering and tasteful decorating.  Another bit of worthy, though somewhat heavy-handed irony, is that there is little doubt from Boyle’s prose, that undocumented workers help build the wall that ends up surrounding the neighborhood.

As the story arches to its conclusion, Delaney and Kyra lose their other dog to a coyote, their cat, Dame Edith (another humorous tongue in cheek reference to the haves and the pretentious in this book is that Kyra has named all of her pets after the famous literary Sitwell family–Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverel) is eaten by Cándido and América in their desperate hunger. Kyra is oblivious to the suffering of the immigrants, but is incensed when she sees a dog left in a car in the heat.

Cándido receives a free Thanksgiving turkey from a shopper at a grocery store and is so excited to roast it that he accidentally starts a fire in the dry season which obliterates Kyra’s favorite house she is selling, her dream house, and ruins the Thanksgiving of everyone in the neighborhood. In the chaos, the white-collar criminal escapes, with potentially millions of dollars squirreled away, while Cándido steals supplies from backyards to help the in-labor América. He even steals dog dishes to use as pots and pans. Cándido’s theft, which is personal, is more outrageous then what the white-collar criminal has done, because that crime was done organizationally and systemically. This literary observation is also just as pertinent today as it was 17 years ago.

Boyle’s book draws fire for its characters being stereotypes. I am not sure if this accusation is leveled at Kyra and Delaney (who recycle and are mostly vegetarian) or América and Cándido, who have an impossible litany of horrible things happen to them.  These characters all feel real to me—not as in I might meet them on the street, but I recognize their complexity, hypocrisy and humanness. Perhaps in some people’s vision of liberals, they aren’t quite so hypocritical. Or perhaps some readers don’t like that Cándido and América are uneducated and that Cándido occasionally hits América. It is a well-documented fact that as unemployment rates increase, domestic violence also increases. Cándido and América’s story of the corrupt coyote rings true with much nonfiction I have read as well.  Perhaps some readers also don’t realize Boyle’s mirroring technique and instead see a heavy-handed portrayal of have and have nots—where I saw a satirical layering of the bitter struggle for survival versus the first-world problems in the United States which cause us “stress.”

I also realized that every time Delaney wrote about the coyote for his nature column, what he was really writing about was immigration. This veiled column (pp. 211-215) is a masterpiece of showing and not telling but its complexity reverberated for me because character Delaney was “telling,” letting author Boyle show us so much about this character and the world and culture he lives in…which happens to closely resemble early 21st century America. The mere fact that Boyle names the young, pregnant, beaten, besieged teen in the book América is a constant reminder to the reader of what our country used to be, and contrasts it to what our country is now, without the author ever having to say a word on that subject.

As a writer, I learned much about the power of parallelism while reading this story—not just the rhetorical device of constructing sentences and paragraphs, but the power of alternating viewpoints and intertwined tragedy and the unintended domino effect of character actions on the other characters within the novel.  In addition to a stinging social commentary about immigration, poverty, violence and even healthcare in the United States, Boyle has also produced a remarkable and envy-worthy structure for this novel.

The Women

book by T.C. Boyle

annotation by Tina Rubin

My rendezvous with this novel, which was on a sale table at Borders, was too coincidental to ignore. I’ve always loved the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and I always meant to read something by T. C. Boyle. When the two forces coalesced, I was helpless. Of course, this novel is about Wright’s messy relationships with the four women he loved, not his work—but through them and the narrator, we do get a sense of the complete man.

It’s fascinating to learn about each of the women and see how the architect, a classic narcissist, interacted with them and others in his world. But Boyle takes us beyond fascination. There are many elements of interest to writers here.

If I were contemplating writing this novel, the first question I would ponder is who should narrate it. Each of the four women and Wright himself—five narrators? Have Wright tell his own story? Use an omniscient narrator?

Boyle did none of the above. He created a completely fictional narrator, 25-year-old Sato Tadashi, a Japanese national whose father has paid steep tuition for him to join the Taliesin Fellowship and work directly with Wright. Intelligent, likable Tadashi was a smart choice for the book. Readers not only see the characters through Tadashi’s cultural bias, which makes this version of Wright’s life unique, but also get a look at the treatment of Japanese in midwestern America during the 1930s and 40s—including a poignant section in which Tadashi is sent away for internment. Bravo to Boyle for finding a way to lobby for social justice.

Tadashi tells his own story in a chapter prefacing each part of the three-part book, then comments in footnotes in the chapters that follow. He narrates those chapters in close third, capturing the voice of the dominant character: Olgivanna (wife three), Miriam (wife two), Mamah (mistress), Kitty (wife one), Frank, or the Barbadian servant, Julian Carleton, who murdered Mamah and seven others and set Taliesin on fire.

Tadashi comes to Taliesin late in Wright’s story (accurately, in terms of the establishment of the Fellowship), when the architect is married to his last wife. Fictional Tadashi relies on opinions from a fictional translator, his Caucasian grandson-in-law, who helps him get at the truth of Frank Lloyd Wright. The device is a bit muddy; Boyle could have carried on without this layer of complication.

However, Boyle does a terrific, fun job of expressing the character of Miriam, Frank’s morphine-addicted, flamboyant second wife (whom he married when Kitty granted him a divorce after Mamah’s murder). The chapters involving the psychotic servant, Carleton, also sing. A caveat: Boyle gives an island dialect to Carleton’s peasant wife, Gertrude. It serves a purpose—to contrast his education with her lack of it—but it made me, as a reader, slow way down to pronounce the words in my mind. Use dialect sparingly, if you have to use it at all. You don’t want the reader drifting out of the story. The Carelton chapters were the climax of the novel, so at least Boyle had timing on his side.

Another choice Boyle had to make was how to structure the story. The logical choice would be to do it chronologically, but that wouldn’t have been the dramatic choice. He introduces Tadashi and then Olgivanna. From there he works backwards, with overlaps. (The overlaps were actually a gift of Wright himself; that’s how the man lived. When one wife refused to grant him a divorce, he simply carried on with a mistress, completely disregarding society’s mores.) At first I was thrown by Boyle’s reverse structure, which (obviously) didn’t move the story forward or build much tension from chapter to chapter, but his reasoning became clear in the end. He closes with Mamah’s murder. High drama. But was it a great structural choice? If the novel hadn’t been about Frank Lloyd Wright, I might not have made it to the end.

Creating enduring characters may be the biggest job a writer faces. The fact that most of the characters in The Women were real made the job easier for Boyle, but he did a good job breathing his own energy into them. Here is passage from Miriam, when she receives Wright’s divorce summons while staying at the home of her friend Leora in Los Angeles:

Yes, she’d left him. Of course she had. Anyone would have. A saint—even the martyrs in their hair shirts and bloody rags. He was impossible, the single most infuriating human being she’d ever met, what with his God complex and his perfectionism, fussing over every last detail as if the world depended on it, his snoring, his musical evenings, the utter soul-crushing desolation of rural Wisconsin where he all but kept her prisoner and every overfed housewife and goggling rube staring at her as if she had the letter A sewed to the front of her dress. Of course she’d left him. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love him still.

In the end, The Women: A Novel is an intriguing, high-energy story with good pacing and some lovely language and imagery. And if one of your characters is a narcissist, as one of mine is, this is the book for you. There’s no better model for it than Frank Lloyd Wright.