Book Notes: T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain

Everybody here knows what I do and understands how much it tinges my perception of the Hispanic people. I feel warm and fuzzy when I simply just hear the word “Mexican.”

I understand, though, that nobody is required to share my feelings. Cultural differences exist and people can feel wary or anxious about those who are different. The day before I had to take my first class in Latin American culture, I threw a fit because I suspected there would be Hispanic women there, and I was terrified of them before ever meeting a single one. And then I started hanging out with Hispanic women to learn Spanish and discovered these were my favorite people in the world.

So what I suggest when you are bothered by a culture is to spend some time in a friendly interaction with people whose culture you find threatening or icky. You might completely change your mind. Or not, you never know. But it makes sense to try.

This suggestion, of course, only pertains to reasonable, mentally healthy folks and not obsessed paranoiacs like T.C. Boyle. God, this fellow hates Mexicans with the power of a million fiery suns. His Mexican characters are not only “rapists and murderers” – which they are – but they also burn down half of California and destroy a beautiful library of 6,000 volumes. The metaphor couldn’t be clearer: Mexicans are so uncivilized that they destroy knowledge, culture and beauty.

They also kill a cat. Like in, they cook it and eat it. A little boy’s pet cat. And it’s a really nice cat, too. If even I, a person who is indifferent to cats, felt a pang when she was killed and eaten by Mexicans, that means the cat was portrayed in the novel as a really nice, friendly animal who didn’t deserve this fate.

And then they eat more pet cats.

I can only conclude that the author is obviously mentally unwell because his hatred of Mexicans makes Trump look like a passionate admirer of the Mexican culture. Again, I’m very willing to recognize the million and one problems of the Mexican culture. But it’s simply crazy to present the Mexican people as these irredeemable, useless, stupid folks who destroy everything they touch. And eat cats after doing it.

The novel’s parallel story of clueless American liberals I’m not even discussing because it’s been done a bizillion times in US literature and I’m so over it.

Reading this book was a powerful experience because it isn’t often that you encounter such raw, pulsating hatred spewed out with unflagging intensity over 449 pages. I’m very opposed to teaching this book in high school because the literary quality is nil and kids this age are not equipped to resist a text of such great intensity and such a simplistic worldview.

Once again, thank you, reader el, for giving me a copy. I’m very glad I read this book.

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17 thoughts on “Book Notes: T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain”

  1. \ destroy a beautiful library of 6,000 volumes.

    When does it happen? I have just read it and don’t remember.

    \ They also kill a cat. Like in, they cook it and eat it. A little boy’s pet cat. And it’s a really nice cat, too.

    To be fair, when Cándido felt hopeless later in the novel, he thought of sacrificing himself so that his wife and daughter may live (and receive welfare benefits) immediately before and after thinking about the cat. Killing a cat was a sacrifice he did and he felt guilty for lying to his wife about it.

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    1. The Da Ros place! The oasis of culture, beauty and peace. Books! Artwork! Antiques!

      I wondered why there were so many endless descriptions of the Da Ros place. And then it became clear: to get the house destroyed by these useless Mexicans.

      As for the cat, it’s not something that really happened. The author chose to have them kill a cat. And then their own baby. Because that’s what the author wanted them to do.


      https://polldaddy.com/js/rating/rating.js

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      1. Oi, yes.

        \ I wondered why there were so many endless descriptions of the Da Ros place. And then it became clear: to get the house destroyed by these useless Mexicans.

        I also wondered and thought it was to present the Dream of white flight and its ultimate futility when the house burned down.

        \ And then their own baby.

        They didn’t. It was a horrible accident.

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        1. About the baby. Look. Any reasonable person with a modicum of common sense if they do have a baby in a tool shed, the first thing they do is walk over to a police station and get help. And yeah, they get deported or worse. But if you are a parent, the first thing you care about is the well-being of the child.

          And note how they lose Socorro right after it becomes clear that she’s “defective”, seriously disabled. Is that a coincidence?

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        2. And good point about the Da Ros place. The husband killed himself, and there is no flight more ultimate than that. The wife retreated to Europe. I guess Italians are “better” than Mexicans in this novel.

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  2. The conscious idea behind cat eating was to show to what level unprotected people without any rights (in practice) are forced to descend.

    Have you seen good portrayals of Mexican or other illegal immigrants and / or migrant workers in American literature?

    I also wanted to ask whether you read Dorothy Allison’s “Bastard out of Carolina,” and if yes whether it’s a good book from literary point of view and whether you liked it.

    \ I’m very opposed to teaching this book in high school because the literary quality is nil and kids this age are not equipped to resist a text of such great intensity and such a simplistic worldview.

    I think the biggest problem is kids being taught that the novel is protesting migrants workers’ exploitation and fighting for their rights by unflinchingly presenting their plight.

    If kids had class discussions presenting different views of the novel, including your criticism, it could’ve been a good learning experience.

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    1. But couldn’t they eat a pet that readers don’t have an emotional attachment to? Somebody who isn’t depicted helping America during the delivery? Somebody who isn’t a little boy’s only remaining pet after he already lost two in a traumatic way? There is a million ways of making this point, yet the author chooses this one?

      And yeah, if the students had a Yale-educated scholar of literature available to them, that’d be great. 🙂

      Let me ask you this. As you read the accumulation of misery for these characters, what did you want them to do? What did you envision as a solution for them?

      For me, it was clear that they had to go home. They were clearly so alien to this country, they had to leave. I wanted them to go home. And I’m a person who can’t get enough Mexican immigrants for obvious reasons.

      Fighting for their rights – but the rights to do what? Have a bathroom with gleaming faucets? That they’d immediately destroy by shitting on the floor or somehow managing to make the roof fall in? Let’s say somebody gives them green cards. What would that change? Would Cándido stop beating his wife? Would they stop abusing the baby? Would a green card magically produce a job or a house or teach them to speak English or to connect with other humans? The people depicted here can’t be helped in this way.

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      1. \ Let me ask you this. As you read the accumulation of misery for these characters, what did you want them to do? What did you envision as a solution for them?

        I did initially want them to go home, but then read about the family being broken apart in this case, with Cándido being for some reason prohibited from living with his wife and America becoming an old maid serving her father till his death and then … ? Mexico was described as hell on Earth, a country of old maids and lost (to America) men who cannot find any job in their own country.

        After reading that, I did imagine how becoming legal would let them find work without fear of getting caught. My solution for this couple would’ve been green cards, a work program for Cándido and help from welfare services till they stand on their own two legs after a while.

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        1. I thought that this “family” getting broken apart was the best thing possible. This Cándido fellow is a stinking pedophile who lures this child away from home with ridiculous promises, never marries her because he’s already married, to her sister, no less, impregnates her, isolates her and abuses her. He beats her for getting raped. He’s a classic domestic abuser. Anything is better for her than being with him.

          The novel is set during a recession, and there is clearly no work. A green card would make it harder for Cándido to find work because his only value on the job market is that he’s illegal and can be hired at below minimal wage. Why would anybody hire him and pay him $10 an hour with job protections when you can hire an illegal guy and pay him $3?

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          1. What puzzles me is how it’s possible that Cándido spent the better half of a decade in the US, didn’t pick up even a couple of English words and managed never to hear anything about Thanksgiving and to remain completely stunned by the concept. He isn’t supposed to be dumb or mentally deficient. So how is it possible?

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  3. \ And note how they lose Socorro right after it becomes clear that she’s “defective”, seriously disabled. Is that a coincidence?

    Seeing in various senses played such a strong part in the novel (*) that I thought the baby’s blindness had to have some symbolical significance. Unfortunately, what it is still eludes me.

    The only thought I had was that the baby could be seen as an anchor … Googled about “”Anchor baby”and read “the child’s birthplace is thought to have been chosen in order to improve the mother’s or other relatives’ chances of securing eventual citizenship.” Only their anchor is “defective” and does not hold.

    The interesting thing that I did notice was that the American couple decided to have abortion, while Mexicans lost their child. Neither has a future in America, but the novel imo fails to show who does have it. The racist teens who vandalize their own wall can’t be the future of America either, so what and who is left?

    I suppose the bleakness of the novel has to do with neoliberal (if I use the word correctly) fear of advocating any practical steps. This is neither American moderate version of Chernyshevsky’s “What Is To Be Done?” nor Trump’s “build that wall” (at least, not on purpose, even though you interpreted the novel as supporting Trump’s worldview). Thus, when government is both unable and unwilling to solve the problem, only individual kind acts are possible, even if they’re ultimately fruitless.

    (*) For instance, Cándido thinks how Americans want him to become invisible. Delaney has to hit Cándido with a car in order to see him in a literal sense, starts noticing other Mexicans afterwards and the end may hint at the possibility of seeing each other not merely physically, to achieve if not understanding than at least the recognition of each other’s humanity. The novel’s title itself includes the word “Curtain” – something that hides from sight.

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    1. The title is also a play on the Iron Curtain. The Iron Curtain is gone and now there are only these flimsy tortilla curtains that can’t stop the immigration flows.

      With the girl’s blindness, I’m one of those very literal literary critics. Cándido realized she is blind and his image of her changes completely. He imagines her as a shriveled and useless old hag. Immediately after that, they lose her.

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  4. I’ll throw in that I remember hearing urban legends about Mexicans eating dogs and cats in the US back in the late 1970s and 1980s. Between the wikipedia plot summary and what you’re saying it sounds like he collected a whole bunch of negative stereotypes and urban legends and worked them into one convenient package under the guise of trying to ‘humanize’ them but instead just ends up making them seem like subhuman wretches…

    “Let’s say somebody gives them green cards. What would that change?”

    Exactly, do-gooder literature at its most demeaning, to show the injustice of it all he makes the characters so wretched that there is no possible good solution.

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    1. Absolutely. It’s like all the negative stereotypes both of Mexicans and Americans magnified to get power of one million. The way Americans are portrayed, both the liberals and the future Trumpies is ridiculous. They are shitty parents, shitty relatives, shitty friends, shitty human beings. The only nice creature in the novel is that poor cat. Americans are consumerist to the point of being a total parody, besieged with ridiculous anxieties and manias, money-hungry, cruel, greedy, isolated, pompous. And this is hammered on and on for hundreds of pages. And yes all these problems do exist among Americans and Mexicans. But never to this completely bleak and horrible extent. Honestly, I think even somebody truly horrible like Stalin was not as irredeemable as these middle-class Americans.

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