Literary Features Syndicate

All satire is supposed to be funny, of course, but the best examples of the form are meant to make people squirm, if only because they see unpleasant aspects of themselves being lampooned in the telling.

If satire is going to work, it has to have some bite to it, T. Coraghessan Boyle said last week while discussing The Tortilla Curtain (Viking, $23.95), his caustic new novel about two groups of “haves and have-nots” in contemporary American society, illegal Mexican immigrants to California, and resident whites determined to keep them out.

Boyle offered the comment in response to criticism he has received from both sides of the explosive immigration issue during a 26-city national tour he has been making for the past month to promote his book. The Tortilla Curtain is Boyle’s tenth work to appear since 1979, his first novel since The Road to Wellville brought him legions of appreciative new readers two years ago. The tall man with the unusual middle name it’s pronounced kuh-RAGG-ihson, though he prefers to be called Tom makes no bones about the fact that he sees this novel as a 1990s version of The Grapes of Wrath. Indeed, he uses a particularly provocative quotation from John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel of impoverished Oklahoma Dustbowl farmers who seek new lives in the migrant labor camps of sunny California as an epigraph to his book:

They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.

Today, Boyle said, the very same words are used to describe Latin Americans who enter the United States illegally with hopes of improving their lives in any way they can.

While the aspirations of all immigrants may be noble, their unauthorized presence in huge numbers alarms millions of citizens. The passage last year in California of Proposition 187, the ballot initiative that denies many services to illegal immigrants, reflects the mood of many Americans.

“I’m not trying to rewrite Steinbeck,” the 47-year-old resident of a Santa Barbara, Calif., suburb said. “I’m just thinking about his ethos. In 1939, we had police blocking the borders of California trying to keep American citizens out. Now we have police blocking the borders to keep non-American citizens out. There were not five-and-a-half billion people on earth in those days, however, so how does this work out in a world of dwindling resources?” That’s the premise of this novel.

Readers familiar with Boyle’s impressive body of work, books that includes the novels East is East, World’s End, Budding Prospects, and Water Music, and the story collections Without a Hero, If the River Was Whiskey, Greasy Lake and Descent of Man, are familiar with his unique fusion of literary technique and clever wit. The Tortilla Curtain is no exception, although it does take his sense of humor to a deeper, more tangible level.

He accomplishes this through the creation of four primary characters, Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, an affluent American couple, and Candido and America Rincon, a destitute Mexican couple. Delaney and Kyra, quintessential Los Angeles liberals, live in an immaculate community called Arroyo Blanco at the top of Topanga Canyon. A dedicated naturalist, Delaney is the author of a newspaper column known as “Pilgrim at Topanga Creek, an amusing homage to Annie Dillard’s celebrated collection of environmental writings, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. His wife is a tougher-than-nails real estate broker.

Candido, a Mexican laborer in his 30s, and his pregnant wife America, 17, spend their days scurrying around for whatever kind of undocumented work they can find, and pass their nights sleeping miserably in a ravine off the main road through Topanga Canyon. The lives and fortunes of the families intersect when Delaney’s car slams into Candido, a mishap that causes painful injuries and recalls the defining moment of Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

The laborers they hire to build an eight-foot-high wall around their domain, needless to say, are the very people they want their “tortilla curtain” to exclude.

“I do not advocate illegal immigration by any means, I am opposed to it,” Boyle said. “However, I’m much more opposed to painting everybody with a brush. All Mexicans are not dirty, they’re not all illegal, they’re not all evil. My intent here is to let you know a couple of people and judge for yourself.”

If it seems that Boyle is unusually harsh in his depiction of Delaney and Kyra, and white suburban liberals in general, it is, he insisted, for good reason. I know they are better, and I think their behavior needs correcting. These people are my neighbors, after all. I’m not preaching. I’m just saying maybe.

Such a forthright attitude, especially when it is expressed between the hard covers of a best-selling book, is fraught with complications.

“Here I am, pushing hot buttons, making fun of liberals and their hypocrisy, demonstrating the anatomy of racism,” he acknowledged. “I’d be disingenuous to expect them to love me for doing that. But ultimately, I don’t care, because I’m going to do exactly what I want anyway. I have total confidence in my vision and what I’m doing.”