The Tortilla Curtain
by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Published: 1996-09-01
Paperback : 355 pages
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Winner of the Prix Medicis Etranger Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexic...
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Winner of the Prix Medicis Etranger

Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexican illegals Candido and America Rincon desperately cling to their vision of the American Dream as they fight off starvation in a makeshift camp deep in the ravine. And from the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delaney into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.

Editorial Review

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Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces--the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye--but he wasn't very successful. This wasn't a statistic in an actuarial table tucked away in a drawer somewhere, this wasn't random and impersonal. It had happened to him, Delaney Mossbacher, of 32 Piñon Drive, Arroyo Blanco Estates, a liberal humanist with an unblemished driving record and a freshly waxed Japanese car with personalized plates, and it shook him to the core. Everywhere he turned he saw those red-flecked eyes, the rictus of the mouth, the rotten teeth and incongruous shock of gray in the heavy black brush of the mustache--they infested his dreams, cut through his waking hours like a window on another reality. He saw his victim in a book of stamps at the post office, reflected in the blameless glass panels of the gently closing twin doors at Jordan's elementary school, staring up at him from his omelette aux fine herbes at Emilio's in the shank of the evening. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

Questions from Publisher's Reading Guide:

1. At the beginning of the story, Delaney accidentally hits Cándido with his car. "For a long moment, they stood there, examining each other, unwitting perpetrator and unwitting victim." How does this encounter set the tone for the events that follow? Does it come full circle in the final scene?

2. The novel is forged on the cultural, social, and financial differences between the Mossbachers and the Rincóns. It alternates between the two couples' points of view, allowing the reader to enter the lives of both families. How does this technique propel the story? Do you feel that you got to know each of the couples equally well? Was the author fair in his portrayal of each of the couples? Is he too harsh in his portrayal of the Mossbachers, as one reviewer suggested?

3. Cándido and America crossed the border in search of a better life for themselves and their unborn child. They do not ask for much and are willing to work hard, yet they are constantly met with resistance and failure. There are numerous references to Cándido's bad luck. Is he unlucky? Is there anything he could have done to have changed his luck? What does this story say about the American dream?

4. The symbol of the coyote appears throughout the novel and represents illegal Mexican immigrants. In his nature column, Delaney writes, "The coyote is not to blame—he is only trying to survive, to make a living, to take advantage of the opportunities available to him." He concludes the same column by writing, "The coyotes keep coming, breeding up to fill in the gaps, moving in where the living is easy. They are cunning, versatile, hungry and unstoppable." How do these passages reflect Delaney's mixed feelings about illegal immigrants? Is he a hypocrite? As the novel progresses, Delaney's humanistic beliefs give way to racism and resentment, and he directs his rage at all illegal immigrants onto Cándido. When confronted with evidence that Cándido is not the vandal at Arroyo Blanco, he destroys it. Why does Delaney need to believe that the vandal is Cándido? How does Delaney evolve from being a "liberal humanist" to a racist?

5. Boundaries—both real and imagined—play a large role in the novel, especially the front gate at Arroyo Blanco Estates. In what other instances do boundaries appear and what do they represent? What roles do the different characters play in constructing these boundaries?

6. In a recent interview Boyle stated, "If it's satire, it has to bite somebody, has to have teeth in it, otherwise it's useless." How does satire affect The Tortilla Curtain and the telling of the story? Is it a successful technique?

7. The novel concludes with Delaney confronting Cándido with a gun, followed by a mud slide. In an almost simultaneous moment, Cándido realizes his baby is missing and reaches down to offer Delaney a hand. One is a frightening image and the other an act of generosity. How do these contrasting images play off one another? Did the conclusion leave you with a feeling of hope or despair?

8. During an argument with Jack Jardine, Delaney makes the following statement: "Do you realize what you're saying? Immigrants are the lifeblood of this country—and neither of us would be standing here today if it wasn't." In another instance, Jack says to Delaney, "What do you expect, when all you bleeding hearts want to invite the whole world in here to feed at our trough without a thought as to who's going to pay for it, as if the American taxpayer was like Jesus Christ with his loaves and fishes." How do these two sentiments play out in the novel and in the larger issue of immigration?

9. The author stated in the Conversation section of this guide that he feels it is a novelist's job to inhabit people of other races and sexes, for his own understanding of an issue as well as for the reader's. Did The Tortilla Curtain help you to better understand the issue of immigration and the people involved?

10. The author does not offer a solution to the problem of illegal immigration, for which he was praised by several reviewers. Do you think he should have offered a solution?

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