“A masterpiece of contemporary social satire.” —The Wall Street Journal
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 immigrants 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.
About the Author
Hometown:Santa Barbara California
Date of Birth:December 2, 1948
Place of Birth:Peekskill, New York
Education:B.A. in music, State University of New York at Potsdam, 1970; Ph.D. in literature, Iowa University, 1977
Read an Excerpt
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 fines herbes at Emilio’s in the shank of the evening.
The whole thing had happened so quickly. One minute he was winding his way up the canyon with a backseat full of newspapers, mayonnaise jars and Diet Coke cans for the recycler, thinking nothing, absolutely nothing, and the next thing he knew the car was skewed across the shoulder in a dissipating fan of dust. The man must have been crouching in the bushes like some feral thing, like a stray dog or bird-mauling cat, and at the last possible moment he’d flung himself across the road in a mad suicidal scramble. There was the astonished look, a flash of mustache, the collapsing mouth flung open in a mute cry, and then the brake, the impact, the marimba rattle of the stones beneath the car, and finally, the dust. The car had stalled, the air conditioner blowing full, the voice on the radio nattering on about import quotas and American jobs. The man was gone. Delaney opened his eyes and unclenched his teeth. The accident was over, already a moment in history.
To his shame, Delaney’s first thought was for the car (was it marred, scratched, dented?), and then for his insurance rates (what was this going to do to his good-driver discount?), and finally, belatedly, for the victim. Who was he? Where had he gone? Was he all right? Was he hurt? Bleeding? Dying? Delaney’s hands trembled on the wheel. He reached mechanically for the key and choked off the radio. It was then, still strapped in and rushing with adrenaline, that the reality of it began to hit him: he’d injured, possibly killed, another human being. It wasn’t his fault, god knew—the man was obviously insane, demented, suicidal, no jury would convict him—but there it was, all the same. Heart pounding, he slipped out from under the seat belt, eased open the door and stepped tentatively onto the parched strip of naked stone and litter that constituted the shoulder of the road.
Immediately, before he could even catch his breath, he was brushed back by the tailwind of a string of cars racing bumper-to-bumper up the canyon like some snaking malignant train. He clung to the side of his car as the sun caught his head in a hammerlock and the un-air-conditioned heat rose from the pavement like a fist in the face, like a knockout punch. Two more cars shot by. He was dizzy. Sweating. He couldn’t seem to control his hands. “I’ve had an accident,” he said to himself, repeating it over and over like a mantra, “I’ve had an accident.”
But where was the victim? Had he been flung clear, was that it? Delaney looked round him helplessly. Cars came down the canyon, burnished with light; cars went up it; cars turned into the lumberyard a hundred yards up on the right and into the side street beyond it, whining past him as if he didn’t exist. One after another the faces of the drivers came at him, shadowy and indistinct behind the armor of their smoked-glass windshields. Not a head turned. No one stopped.
He walked round the front of the car first, scanning the mute unrevealing brush along the roadside—ceanothus, chamise, redshanks—for some sign of what had happened. Then he turned to the car. The plastic lens over the right headlight was cracked and the turn-signal housing had been knocked out of its track, but aside from that the car seemed undamaged. He threw an uneasy glance at the bushes, then worked his way along the passenger side to the rear, expecting the worst, the bleeding flesh and hammered bone, sure now that the man must have been trapped under the car. Stooping, palm flat, one knee in the dirt, he forced himself to look. Crescendo and then release: nothing there but dust and more dust.
The license plate—PILGRIM—caught the sun as he rose and clapped the grit from his hands, and he looked to the bushes yet again. “Hello!” he cried suddenly over the noise of the cars flashing by in either direction. “Is anybody there? Are you okay?”
He turned slowly round, once, twice, as if he’d forgotten something—a set of keys, his glasses, his wallet—then circled the car again. How could no one have seen what had happened? How could no one have stopped to help, bear witness, gape, jeer—anything? A hundred people must have passed by in the last five minutes and yet he might as well have been lost in the Great Painted Desert for all the good it did him. He looked off up the road to the bend by the lumberyard and the grocery beyond it, and saw the distant figure of a man climbing into a parked car, the hard hot light exploding round him. And then, fighting down the urge to run, to heave himself into the driver’s seat and burn up the tires, to leave the idiot to his fate and deny everything—the date, the time, the place, his own identity and the sun in the sky—Detaney turned back to the bushes. “Hello?” he called again.
Nothing. The cars tore past. The sun beat at his shoulders, his neck, the back of his head.
To the left, across the road, was a wall of rock; to the right, the canyon fell off to the rusty sandstone bed of Topanga Creek, hundreds of feet below. Delaney could see nothing but brush and treetops, but he knew now where his man was—down there, down in the scrub oak and manzanita. The high-resin-compound bumper of the Acura had launched that sad bundle of bone and gristle over the side of the canyon like a Ping-Pong ball shot out of a cannon, and what chance was there to survive that? He felt sick suddenly, his brain mobbed with images from the eyewitness news—shootings, stabbings, auto wrecks, the unending parade of victims served up afresh each day—and something hot and sour rose in his throat. Why him? Why did this have to happen to him?
He was about to give it up and jog to the lumberyard for help, for the police, an ambulance—they’d know what to do—when a glint of light caught his eye through the scrim of brush. He staggered forward blindly, stupidly, like a fish to a lure—he wanted to do the right thing, wanted to help, he did. But almost as quickly, he caught himself. This glint wasn’t what he’d expected—no coin or crucifix, no belt buckle, key chain, medal or steel-toed boot wrenched from the victim’s foot—just a shopping cart, pocked with rust and concealed in the bushes beside a rough trail that plunged steeply down the hillside, vanishing round a right-angle bend no more than twenty feet away.
Delaney called out again. Cupped his hands and shouted. And then he straightened up, wary suddenly, catlike and alert. At five-foot-nine and a hundred and sixty-five pounds, he was compact, heavy in the shoulders and with a natural hunch that made him look as if he were perpetually in danger of pitching forward on his face, but he was in good shape and ready for anything. What startled him to alertness was the sudden certainty that the whole thing had been staged—he’d read about this sort of operation in the Metro section, gangs faking accidents and then preying on the unsuspecting, law-abiding, compliant and fully insured motorist ... But then where was the gang? Down the path? Huddled round the bend waiting for him to take that first fatal step off the shoulder and out of sight of the road?
He might have gone on speculating for the rest of the afternoon, the vanishing victim a case for Unsolved Mysteries or the Home Video Network, if he hadn’t become aware of the faintest murmur from the clump of vegetation to his immediate right. But it was more than a murmur—it was a deep aching guttural moan that made something catch in his throat, an expression of the most primitive and elemental experience we know: pain. Delaney’s gaze jumped from the shopping cart to the path and then to the bush at his right, and there he was, the man with the red-flecked eyes and graying mustache, the daredevil, the suicide, the jack-in-the-box who’d popped up in front of his bumper and ruined his afternoon. The man was on his back, limbs dangling, as loose-jointed as a doll flung in a corner by an imperious little girl. A trail of blood, thick as a finger, leaked from the corner of his mouth, and Delaney couldn’t remember ever having seen anything so bright. Two eyes, dull with pain, locked on him like a set of jaws.
“Are you ... are you okay?” Delaney heard himself say.
The man winced, tried to move his head. Delaney saw now that the left side of the man’s face—the side that had been turned away from him—was raw, scraped and flensed like a piece of meat stripped from the hide. And then he noticed the man’s left arm, the torn shirtsleeve and the skin beneath it stippled with blood and bits of dirt and leaf mold, and the blood-slick hand that clutched a deflated paper bag to his chest. Slivers of glass tore through the bag like claws and orange soda soaked the man’s khaki shirt; a plastic package, through which. Delaney could make out a stack of tortillas (Como Hechas a Mano), clung to the man’s crotch as if fastened there.
“Can I help you?” Delaney breathed, gesturing futilely, wondering whether to reach down a hand or not—should he be moved? Could he? “I mean, I’m sorry, I—why did you run out like that? What possessed you? Didn’t you see me?”
Flies hovered in the air. The canyon stretched out before them, slabs of upthrust stone and weathered tumbles of rock, light and shadow at war. The man tried to collect himself. He kicked out his legs like an insect pinned to a mounting board, and then his eyes seemed to sharpen, and with a groan he struggled to a sitting position. He said something then in a foreign language, a gargle and rattle in the throat, and Delaney didn’t know what to do.
It wasn’t French he was speaking, that was for sure. And it wasn’t Norwegian. The United States didn’t share a two-thousand-mile border with France—or with Norway either. The man was Mexican, Hispanic, that’s what he was, and he was speaking Spanish, a hot crazed drumroll of a language to which Delaney’s four years of high-school French gave him little access. “Docteur?” he tried.
The man’s face was a blank. Blood trickled steadily from the corner of his mouth, camouflaged by the mustache. He wasn’t as young as Delaney had first thought, or as slight—the shirt was stretched tight across his shoulders and there was a visible swelling round his middle, just above the package of tortillas. There was gray in his hair too. The man grimaced and sucked in his breath, displaying a mismatched row of teeth that were like pickets in a rotting fence. “No quiero un matasanos,” he growled, wincing as he staggered to his feet in a cyclone of twigs, dust and crushed tumbleweed, “no lo necesito.”
For a long moment they stood there, examining each other, unwitting perpetrator and unwitting victim, and then the man let the useless bag drop from his fingers with a tinkle of broken glass. It lay at his feet in the dirt, and they both stared at it, frozen in time, until he reached down absently to retrieve the tortillas, which were still pinned to the crotch of his pants. He seemed to shake himself then, like a dog coming out of a bath, and as he clutched the tortillas in his good hand, he bent forward woozily to hawk a gout of blood into the dirt.
Delaney felt the relief wash over him—the man wasn’t going to die, he wasn’t going to sue, he was all right and it was over. “Can I do anything for you?” he asked, feeling charitable now. “I mean, give you a ride someplace or something?” Delaney pointed to the car. He held his fists up in front of his face and pantomimed the act of driving. “Dans la voiture?”
The man spat again. The left side of his face glistened in the harsh sunlight, ugly and wet with fluid, grit, pills of flesh and crushed vegetation. He looked at Delaney as if he were an escaped lunatic. “Dooo?” he echoed.
Delaney shuffled his feet. The heat was getting to him. He pushed the glasses back up the bridge of his nose. He gave it one more try: “You know—help. Can I help you?”
And then the man grinned, or tried to. A film of blood clung to the jagged teeth and he licked it away with a flick of his tongue. “Monee?” he whispered, and he rubbed the fingers of his free hand together.
“Money,” Delaney repeated, “okay, yes, money,” and he reached for his wallet as the sun drilled the canyon and the cars sifted by and a vulture, high overhead, rode the hot air rising from below.
Delaney didn’t remember getting back into the car, but somehow he found himself steering, braking and applying gas as he followed a set of taillights up the canyon, sealed in and impervious once again. He drove in a daze, hardly conscious of the air conditioner blasting in his face, so wound up in his thoughts that he went five blocks past the recycling center before realizing his error, and then, after making a questionable U-turn against two lanes of oncoming traffic, he forgot himself again and drove past the place in the opposite direction. It was over. Money had changed hands, there were no witnesses, and the man was gone, out of his life forever. And yet, no matter how hard he tried, Delaney couldn’t shake the image of him.
He’d given the man twenty dollars—it seemed the least he could do—and the man had stuffed the bill quickly into the pocket of his cheap stained pants, sucked in his breath and turned away without so much as a nod or gesture of thanks. Of course, he was probably in shock. Delaney was no doctor, but the guy had looked pretty shaky—and his face was a mess, a real mess. Leaning forward to hold out the bill, Delaney had watched, transfixed, as a fly danced away from the abraded flesh along the line of the man’s jaw, and another, fat-bodied and black, settled in to take its place. In that moment the strange face before him was transformed, annealed in the brilliant merciless light, a hard cold wedge of a face that looked strangely loose in its coppery skin, the left cheekbone swollen and misaligned—was it bruised? Broken ? Or was that the way it was supposed to look? Before Delaney could decide, the man had turned abruptly away, limping off down the path with an exaggerated stride that would have seemed comical under other circumstances—Delaney could think of nothing so much as Charlie Chaplin walking off some imaginary hurt—and then he’d vanished round the bend and the afternoon wore on like a tattered fabric of used and borrowed moments.
Somber, his hands shaking even yet, Delaney unloaded his cans and glass—green, brown and clear, all neatly separated—into the appropriate bins, then drove his car onto the big industrial scales in front of the business office to weigh it, loaded, for the newspaper. While the woman behind the window totted up the figure on his receipt, he found himself thinking about the injured man and whether his cheekbone would knit properly if it was, in fact, broken—you couldn’t put a splint on it, could you? And where was he going to bathe and disinfect his wounds? In the creek? At a gas station?
It was crazy to refuse treatment like that, just crazy. But he had. And that meant he was iilega!—go to the doctor, get deported. There was a desperation in that, a gulf of sadness that took Delaney out of himself for a long moment, and he just stood there in front of the office, receipt in hand, staring into space.
He. tried to picture the man’s life—the cramped room, the bag of second-rate oranges on the streetcorner, the spade and the hoe. and the cold mashed beans dug out of the forty-nine-cent can. Unrefriger- ated tortillas. Orange soda. That oom-pah music with the accordions and the tinny harmonies. But what was he doing on Topanga Canyon Boulevard at one-thirty in the afternoon, out there in the middle of nowhere? Working? Taking a lunch break?
And then all at once Delaney knew, and the understanding hit him with a jolt: the shopping cart, the tortillas, the trail beaten into the dirt—he was camping down there, that’s what he was doing. Camping. Living. Dwelling. Making the trees and bushes and the natural habitat of Topanga State Park into his own private domicile, crapping in the chaparral, dumping his trash behind rocks, polluting the stream and ruining it for everyone else. That was state property down there, rescued from the developers and their bulldozers and set aside for the use of the public, for nature, not for some outdoor ghetto. And what about fire danger? The canyon was a tinderbox this time of year, everyone knew that.
Delaney felt his guilt turn to anger, to outrage.
God, how he hated that sort of thing—the litter alone was enough to set him off. How many times had he gone down one trail or another with a group of volunteers, with the rakes and shovels and black plastic bags? And how many times had he come back, sometimes just days later, to find the whole thing trashed again? There wasn’t a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains that didn’t have its crushed beer cans, its carpet of glass, its candy wrappers and cigarette butts, and it was people like this Mexican or whatever he was who were responsible, thoughtless people, stupid people, people who wanted to turn the whole world into a garbage dump, a little Tijuana ...
Delaney was seething, ready to write his congressman, call the sheriff, anything—but then he checked himself. Maybe he was jumping to conclusions. Who knew who this man was or what he was doing? Just because he spoke Spanish didn’t make him a criminal. Maybe he was a picnicker, a bird-watcher, a fisherman; maybe he was some naturalist from South of the Border studying the gnatcatcher or the canyon wren ...
Yeah, sure. And Delaney was the King of Siam.
When he came back to himself, he saw that he’d managed to reenter the car, drive past the glass and aluminum receptacles and into the enormous littered warehouse with its mountains of cardboard and paper and the dark intense men scrabbling through the drifts of yesterday’s news—men, he saw with a shock of recognition, who were exactly like the jack-in-the-box on the canyon road, right down to the twin pits of their eyes and the harsh black strokes of their mustaches. They were even wearing the same khaki workshirts and sacklike trousers. He’d been in Los Angeles nearly two years now, and he’d never really thought about it before, but they were everywhere, these men, ubiquitous, silently going about their business, whether it be mopping up the floors at McDonald’s, inverting trash cans in the alley out back of Emilio’s or moving purposively behind the rakes and blowers that combed the pristine lawns of Arroyo Blanco Estates twice a week. Where had they all come from? What did they want? And why did they have to throw themselves under the wheels’ of his car?
He had the back door open and was shifting his tightly bound bundles of paper from the car to the nearest pile, when a shrill truncated whistle cut through the din of machinery, idling engines, slamming doors and trunks. Delaney looked up. A forklift had wheeled up beside him and the man driving it, his features inscrutable beneath the brim of his yellow hard hat, was gesturing to him. The man said something Delaney couldn’t quite catch. “What?” he called out over the noise of the place:
A hot wind surged through the warehouse doors, flinging dust. Ads and supplements shot into the air, Parade, Holiday, Ten Great Escapes for the Weekend. Engines idled, men shouted, forklifts beeped and stuttered. The man looked down on him from his perch, the bright work-polished arms of the vehicle sagging beneath its load of newsprint, as if it were inadequate to the task, as if even sheet metal and steel couldn’t help but buckle under the weight of all that news.
“Ponlos allá,” he said, pointing to the far corner of the building.
Delaney stared up at him, his arms burdened with paper. “What?” he repeated.
For a long moment, the man simply sat there, returning his gaze. Another car pulled in. A pigeon dove from the rafters and Delaney saw that there were dozens of them there, caught against the high open two-story drift of the roof. The man in the hard hat bent forward and spat carefully on the pavement. And then suddenly, without warning, the forklift lurched back, swung round, and vanished in the drifts of printed waste.
“So what’d you hit—a deer? Coyote?”
Delaney was in the showroom of the Acura dealership, a great ugly crenellated box of a building he’d always hated—it didn’t blend with the surrounding hills, didn’t begin to, not at all—but somehow, today, he felt strangely comforted by it. Driving up with his cracked lens and disarranged signal housing, he’d seen it as a bastion of the familiar and orderly, where negotiations took place the way they were supposed to, in high-backed chairs, with checkbooks and contracts and balance sheets. There were desks, telephones, the air was cool, the floors buffed to brilliance. And the cars themselves, hard and unassailable, so new they smelled of wax, rubber and plastic only, were healing presences arranged like heavy furniture throughout the cavern of the room. He was sitting on the edge of Kenny Grissom’s desk, and Kenny Grissom, the enthusiastic moon-faced thirty-five-year-old boy who’d sold him the car, was trying to look concerned.
Delaney shrugged, already reaching for the phone. “A dog, I think it was. Might have been a coyote, but kind of big for a coyote. Must have been a dog. Sure it was. Yeah. A dog.”
Why was he lying? Why did he keep thinking of shadowy black-and-white movies, men in creased hats leaning forward to light cigarettes, the hit-and-run driver tracked down over a few chips of paint—or a cracked headlight? Because he was covering himself, that’s why. Because he’d just left the poor son of a bitch there alongside the road, abandoned him, and because he’d been glad of it, relieved to buy him off with his twenty dollars’ blood money. And how did that square with his liberal-humanist ideals?
“I hit a dog once,” Kenny Grissom offered, “when I was living out in Arizona? It was this big gray shaggy thing, a sheepdog, I guess it was. I was driving a pickup at the time, Ford half-ton with a four-sixty in it, and my girlfriend was with me. I never even seen the thing—one minute I’m cruising, and the next minute my girlfriend’s all in tears and there’s this thing that looks like an old rug in the middle of the road in back of me. I don’t know. So I back up and the dog like lurches to his feet, but he’s only got three legs and I thought like holy shit I blew his leg right off, but then Kim gets out and we kind of look and there’s no blood or anything, just a stump.”
Kenny’s face was working, as if there were something trapped under the skin trying to get out. “Friggin’ thing only had three legs to begin with,” he suddenly shouted, “no wonder he couldn’t get out of the way!” His laugh reverberated through, the vast hollow spaces of the room, a salesman’s laugh, too sharp-edged and pleased with itself. And then his face came back to the moment, sober suddenly, composed round the pale tawny bristle of his mustache. “But it’s a bitch, I know it is,” he observed in a sort of yodel. “And don’t you worry, we’ll have your car for you any minute now, good as new. Feel free to use the phone.”
Delaney just nodded. He’d dialed Kyra at work and was listening to the number ring through.
“Hello?” Her voice was bright, amplified, right there with him.
“It’s me, honey.”
“What’s wrong? Is it Jordan? Something’s happened to Jordan?”
Delaney took a deep breath. Suddenly he felt hurt, put-upon, ready to let it all spill out of him. “I had an accident.”
Now it was her turn—the sharp insuck of breath, the voice gone dead in her throat. “Jordan’s hurt, isn’t he? Tell me, tell me the worst. Quick! I can’t stand it!”
“Nobody’s hurt, honey, everybody’s okay. I haven’t even gone to pick Jordan up yet.”
A numb silence, counters clicking, synapses flashing. “Are you all right? Where are you?”
“The Acura dealer. I’m getting the headlight fixed.” He glanced up, lowered his voice, Kenny Grissom nowhere in sight: “I hit a man.”
“Hit a man?” There was a flare of anger in her voice. “What are you talking about?”
“A Mexican. At least I think he was a Mexican. Out on the canyon road. I was on my way to the recycler.”
“My god. Did you call Jack?”
Jack was Jack Jardine, their friend, neighbor, adviser and lawyer, who also happened to be the president of the Arroyo Blanco Estates Property Owners’ Association. “No”—Delaney sighed—“I just got here and I wanted to tell you, to let you know—”
“What are you thinking? Are you out of your mind? Do you have any idea what one of these shyster personal-injury lawyers would do to get hold of something like this? You hit a man? Was he hurt? Did you take him to the hospital? Did you call the insurance?”
Delaney tried to gather it all in. She was excitable, Kyra, explosive, her circuits so high-wired she was always on the verge of overload, even when she was asleep. There were no minor issues in her life. “No, listen, Kyra: the guy’s okay. I mean, he was just ... bruised, that was all. He’s gone, he went away. I gave him twenty bucks.”
And then, before the words could turn to ash in his mouth, it was out: “I told you—he was Mexican.”
HE’D HAD HEADACHES BEFORE-HIS WHOLE LIFE was a headache, his whole stinking worthless pinche vida-but never like this. It felt as if a bomb had gone off inside his head, one of those big atomic ones like they dropped on the Japanese, the black roiling clouds pushing and pressing at his skull, no place to go, no release, on and on and on. But that wasn’t all—the throb was in his stomach too, and he had to go down on his hands and knees and vomit in the bushes before he’d even got halfway to the camp in the ravine. He felt his breakfast come up—two hard-cooked eggs, half a cup of that weak reheated piss that passed for coffee and a tortilla he’d involuntarily blackened on a stick held over the fire-all of it, every lump and fleck, and then he vomited again. His stomach heaved till he could taste the bile in the back of his throat, and yet he couldn’t move, that uncontainable pressure fighting to punch through his ears, and he crouched there for what seemed like hours, hypnotized by a single strand of saliva that dangled endlessly from his lips.
When he got to his feet again, everything had shifted. The shadows had leapt the ravine, the sun was caught in the trees and the indefatigable vulture had been joined by two others. “Yes, sure, come and get me,” he muttered, spitting and wincing at the same time, “that’s all I am—a worn-out carcass, a walking slab of meat.” But Christ in Heaven, how it hurt! He raised a hand to the side of his face and the flesh was stiff and crusted, as if an old board had been nailed to his head. What had happened to him? He was crossing the road, coming back from the grocery after the labor exchange closed—the far grocery, the cheaper one, and what did it matter if it was on the other side of the road? The old man there at the checkout—a paisano, he called himself, from Italy—he didn’t look at you like you were dirt, like you were going to steal, like you couldn’t keep your hands off all the shiny bright packages of this and that, beef jerky and nachos and shampoo, little gray-and-black batteries in a plastic sleeve. He’d bought an orange soda, Nehi, and a package of tortillas to go with the pinto beans burned into the bottom of the pot ... and then what? Then he crossed the road.
Yes. And then that pink-faced gabacho ran him down with his flaming gabacho nose and the little lawyer glasses clenched over the bridge of it. All that steel, that glass, that chrome, that big hot iron engine—it was like a tank coming at him, and his only armor was a cotton shirt and pants and a pair of worn-out huaraches. He stared stupidly round him—at the fine tracery of the brush, at the birds lighting in the branches and the treetops below him, at the vultures scrawling their ragged signatures in the sky. America would help him when she got back, she’d brew some tea from manzanita berries to combat the pain, bathe his wounds, cluck her tongue and fuss over him. But he needed to go down the path now, and his hip was bothering him all of a sudden, and the left knee, there, where the trousers were torn.
It hurt. Every step of the way. But he thought of the penitents at Chalma, crawling a mile and a half on their knees, crawling till bone showed through the flesh, and he went on. Twice he fell. The first time he caught himself with his good arm, but the second time he tasted dust and his eyes refused to focus, the whole hot blazing world gone cool and dark all of a sudden, as if he’d been transposed to the bottom of the ocean. He heard a mockingbird then, a whistle and trill in the void, and it was as if it had drowned in sunlight too, and then he was dreaming.
His dreams were real. He wasn’t flying through the air or talking with the ghost of his mother or vanquishing his enemies—he was stalled in the garbage dump in Tijuana, stalled at the wire, and America was sick with the gastro and he didn’t have a cent in the world after the cholos and the coyotes had got done with him. Sticks and cardboard over his head. The stink of burning dogs in the air. Low man in the pecking order, even at the dompe. Life is poor here, an old man—a garbage picker—had told him. Yes, he’d said, and he was saying it now, the words on his lips somewhere between the two worlds, but at least you have garbage.
America found him at the bottom of the path, bundled in the twilight like a heap of rags. She’d walked nearly eight miles already, down out of the canyon to the highway along the ocean where she could catch the bus to Venice for a sewing job that never materialized, and then back again, and she was like death on two feet. Two dollars and twenty cents down the drain and nothing to show for it. In the morning, at first light, she’d walked along the Coast Highway, and that made her feel good, made her feel like a girl again—the salt smell, people jogging on the beach, the amazing narrow-shouldered houses of the millionaires growing up like mushrooms out of the sand—but the address the Guatemalan woman had given her was worth nothing. All the way there, all,the way out in the alien world, a bad neighborhood, drunks in the street, and the building was boarded up, deserted, no back entrance, no sewing machines, no hard-faced boss to stand over her and watch her sweat at three dollars and thirty-five cents an hour, no nothing. She checked the address twice, three times, and then she turned round to retrace her steps and found that the streets had shuffled themselves in the interim, and she knew she was lost.
By lunchtime, she could taste the panic in the back of her throat. For the first time in four months, for the first time since they’d left the South and her village and everything she knew in the world, she was separated from Cándido. She walked in circles .and everything looked strange, even when she’d seen it twice, three times over. She didn’t speak the language. Black people sauntered up the street with plastic grocery bags dangling from their wrists. She stepped in dog excrement. A gabacho sat on the sidewalk with his long hair and begged for change and the sight of him struck her with unholy terror: if he had to beg in his own country, what chance was there for her? But she held on to her six little silvery coins and finally a woman with the chilango accent of Mexico City helped her find the bus.
She had to walk back up the canyon in the bleak light of the declining day while the cars swished by her in a lethal hissing chain, and in every one a pair of eyes that screamed, Get out, get out of here and go back where you belong!—and how long before one of them tore up the dirt in front of her and the police were standing there demanding her papers? She hurried along, head down, shoulders thrust forward, and when the strip of pavement at the side of the road narrowed to six inches she had to climb over the guardrail and plow through the brush.
Sweat stung her eyes. Burrs and thorns and the smooth hard daggers of the foxtails bit into every step. She couldn’t see where she was going. She worried about snakes, spiders, turning her ankle in a ditch. And then the cars began to switch on their lights and she was alone on a terrible howling stage, caught there for everyone to see. Her clothes were soaked through by the time the entrance to the path came into sight, and she ran the last hundred yards, ran for the cover of the brush while the cold beams of light hunted her down, and she had to crouch there in the bushes till her breath came back to her.
The shadows deepened. Birds called to one another. Swish, swish, swish, the cars shot by, no more than ten feet away. Any one of them could stop, any one. She listened to the cars and to the air rasping through her lips, to the hiss of the tires and the metallic whine of the engines straining against the grade. It went on for a long time, forever, and the sky grew darker. Finally, when she was sure no one was following her, she started down the path, letting the trees and the shrubs and the warm breath of the night calm her, hungry now—ravenous—and so thirsty she could drink up the whole streambed, whether Cándido thought the water was safe or not.
At first, the thing in the path wasn’t anything to concern her—a shape, a concert of shades, light and dark—and then it was a rock, a pile of laundry, and finally, a man, her man, sleeping there in the dirt. Her first thought was that he was drunk—he’d got work and he’d been drinking, drinking cold beer and wine while she struggled through the nine circles of Hell—and she felt the rage come up in her. No lunch—she hadn’t had a bite since dawn, and then it was only a burned tortilla and an egg—and nothing to drink even, not so much as a sip of water. What did he think she was? But then she bent and touched him and she knew that she was in the worst trouble of her life.
The fire was a little thing, twigs mostly, a few knots the size of a fist, nothing to attract attention. Candido lay on a blanket in the sand beside it, and the flames were like a magic show, snapping and leaping and throwing the tiniest red rockets into the air round a coil of smoke. He was dreaming still, dreaming with his eyes open, images shuffled like cards in a deck till he didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. At the moment he was replaying the past, when he was a boy in Tepoztlán, in the south of Mexico, and his father caught an opossum in among the chickens and he hit it with a stick—zas!—just above the eyes. The opossum collapsed like a sack of cloth and it lay there, white in the face and with the naked feet and tail of a giant rat, stunned and twitching. That was how he felt now, just like that opossum. The pressure in his head had spread to his chest, his groin, his limbs—to every last flayed fiber of his body—and he had to close his eyes against the agonizing snap and roar of the fire. They skinned the opossum and they ate it in a stew with hominy and onions. He could taste it even now, even here in the North with his body crushed and bleeding and the fire roaring in his ears—rat, that’s what it tasted like, wet rat.
América was cooking something over the fire. Broth. Meat broth. She’d laid him here on the blanket and he’d given her the crumpled bill he’d earned in the hardest way any man could imagine, in the way that would kill him, and she’d gone up the hill to the near store, the one run by the suspicious Chinamen or Koreans or whatever they were, and she’d bought a stew bone with a ragged collar of beef on it, a big plastic bottle of aspirin, rubbing alcohol, a can of gabacho-colored Band-Aids and, best of all, a pint of brandy, E & J, to deaden the pain and keep the dreams at bay.
It wasn’t working.
Excerpted from "The Tortilla Curtain"
Copyright © 1996 T.C. Boyle.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
In this explosive and timely novel, T. Coraghessan Boyle explores an issue that is at the forefront of the political arena. He confronts the controversy over illegal immigration head-on, illuminating through a poignant, gripping story the people on both sides of the issue, the haves and the have-nots.
In Southern California's Topanga Canyon, two couples live in close proximity and yet are worlds apart. High atop a hill overlooking the canyon, nature writer Delaney Mossbacher and his wife, real estate agent Kyra Menaker-Mossbacher, reside in an exclusive, secluded housing development with their son, Jordan. The Mossbachers are agnostic liberals with a passion for recycling and fitness. Camped out in a ravine at the bottom of the canyon are Cándido and América Rincón, a Mexican couple who have crossed the border illegally. On the edge of starvation, they search desperately for work in the hope of moving into an apartment before their baby is born. They cling to their vision of the American dream, which, no matter how hard they try to achieve it, manages to elude their grasp at every turn.
A chance, violent encounter brings together Delaney and Cándido, instigating a chain of events that eventually culminates in a harrowing confrontation. The novel shifts back and forth between the two couples, giving voice to each of the four main characters as their lives become inextricably intertwined and their worlds collide. The Rincóns' search for the American dream, and the Mossbachers' attempts to protect it, comprise the heart of the story. In scenes that are alternately comic, frightening, and satirical, but always all "too real," Boyle confronts not only immigration but social consciousness, environmental awareness, crime, and unemployment in a tale that raises the curtain on the dark side of the American dream.
The United States and Immigration
The debate over immigration continues to escalate across the nation, particularly in California, and this sampling of quotations and statistics from various newspapers and magazines sheds light on the issue.
History suggests that those who truly yearn to come to America and stay will find a way to do it. (Newsweek, August 9, 1993)
In November 1994, California passed by a 59% to 41% vote Proposition 187, a bill that denies certain social privileges, mainly welfare, public schooling, and non-emergency medical care, to illegal immigrants. (The New York Times, November 11, 1994)
California hosts about 40% of the nation's estimated 3.4 million illegal immigrants. (Time, November 21, 1994)
"All Americans...are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.... We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it." (President Clinton, "We Heard America Shouting," Address to Joint Session of Congress, January 25, 1995)
"Our immigration policy is a measure of who we are as a people. I believe we are a people who draw strength from our diversity and meet our challenges head on. I believe we want and deserve immigration laws that favor those who play by the rules." (Bill Bradley, former U.S. Senator, New Jersey, The New Jersey Record, June 8, 1995)
About 800,000 people follow the rules and enter the United States legally as immigrants each year. An additional 200,000 to 300,000 come to the country illegally. (San Francisco Chronicle, December 5, 1995)
Half of illegal immigrants do not cross the borders unlawfully—they enter legally and overstay their visas. (San Francisco Chronicle, March 18, 1996)
ABOUT T.C. BOYLE
T. Coraghessan Boyle was born in 1948 and grew up in Peekskill, New York. He is a graduate of the State University of New York at Potsdam, and received his doctorate in nineteenth-century English literature from the University of Iowa in 1977. Since 1977, Boyle has taught creative writing at the University of Southern California. While in college, Boyle exchanged his middle name, John, for the unusual Coraghessan, the name of one of his Irish ancestors.
Boyle is the author of Descent of Man (1979), Water Music (1982), Budding Prospects (1984), Greasy Lake(1985), World's End (1987, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction), If the River Was Whiskey (1989), East Is East(1990), The Road to Wellville (1993), which was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins, and Without a Hero (1994). His work has appeared in major American magazines, including The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic Monthly. Boyle lives with his wife, Karen, and their three children near Santa Barbara, California, in a house designed in 1909 by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
A CONVERSATION WITH T.C. BOYLE
What is the significance of the title of the book?
The title comes from a common phrase for the Mexican border, The Tortilla Curtain, and I envision it in this way. We have the Iron Curtain, which as an image is impenetrable. You picture this wall across Eastern Europe. Then we have the Bamboo Curtain with regard to China. As I see it, that isn't quite as impenetrable as an iron curtain. It shatters easily and has gaps in it. It's not uniform. And now we have The Tortilla Curtain, which is the opposite of impregnable. It's three strips of barbed wire with some limp tortillas hanging on it. The central question of this, and of the images of walls that appear throughout the book—the walls, the gates, walling people out, what do you wall in, all of that—has to do with us as a species and who owns what. Do you really own your own property? Do you have a right to fence people out? Do we have an obligation to assist people who come over that border, that wall, that gate? How is it that Americans are allowed to have this incredible standard of living while others do not? All of these questions, I think, are wrapped up in my view of our debate over immigration.
What is your view on immigration?
I feel that, on the one hand, we do have a right to be a sovereign nation and to protect our borders. Illegal immigration makes a mockery of legal immigration, and no other country in the world allows this sort of thing to happen. On the other hand, what I object to even more than that is this kind of demonizing of a whole race and class of people, as in considering all Mexicans, all Guatemalans, all Salvadorans to be bad because they're invading our country as impoverished and ignorant individuals. The final gesture of the book, I think, shows you that we are one species and we do have to understand and appreciate that fact despite ethnic and national differences. But it's a small gesture because I think that it's a very, very complex issue that people have to work towards answering.
As an epigraph to the book you use a quotation from The Grapes of Wrath. Did you have John Steinbeck's novel in mind when you wrote The Tortilla Curtain?
I'm not trying to re-write Steinbeck in any way. I chose the epigraph from him because I wanted to see how the ethos of the 1930s, and the traditional liberal ethos of providing for everybody, is applied to today.
The book is essentially set in your own backyard. Did this prompt you to write it? Did the proposal and passing of Proposition 187 (a bill passed in California that denies certain social benefits to illegal immigrants) factor in?
The book was somewhat misunderstood because it came out after the 187 vote, and people attacked the book or enjoyed it based on their own perspective. The book was actually conceived and written prior to Proposition 187's even being drafted, and I think it came from the fact that I lived in Los Angeles for sixteen years. Reading about immigration in the newspaper every day and talking to people at parties like the ones that Delaney and Kyra give, I began to get a sense of something brewing that was akin to what happened here in Steinbeck's day, but had the added element that the Okies of today are not American citizens and they're of a different race.
Do you see The Tortilla Curtain as a political novel?
I think obviously people will want to talk about 187, and the campaign to draft a national bill like 187, but this book isn't a political novel in the sense that it takes a position and is meant to have people agree or disagree with that position. It's political in a different sense. I don't think political novels work because they have "an ax to grind." If you have "an ax to grind," then you have to sacrifice aesthetics and the discovery of the book in order to make your point or to make people join your party or to see your point of view. I write a book like The Tortilla Curtain from having lived here and picked up on everything going on that finally resulted in 187, and from trying to sort out my own feelings. I don't have a position when I begin a book, any book. I write in order to put some hypothetical elements together and see what will happen. I don't know what's going to happen even chapter by chapter, and I don't know what's going to happen at the end of the book. That's a process of discovery, which is why I write novels rather than, let's say, a polemic, to discover how I feel about the issues, but particularly about this issue.
Critics and readers on both sides of the immigration issue had mixed reactions to The Tortilla Curtain. Why do you think the book generated so much controversy?
I'm not presenting any answers, and I think that's why the book was very controversial. People want a polemic. They want to raise their fist in the air and say, "Yes, you're on our side." Well, I'm not on your side. I am presenting a fable, a fiction, so that you can judge for yourself. A lot of people simply read the book and flew off the handle because it either accords with what they want it to or it doesn't. People want things to be very clear-cut. Here's the issue and here's how I stand on it. But I think it's much more complex. I think it has to do with biology. You may notice that Delaney is a nature writer. Well, nature writers are generally very liberal, even radically liberal on all issues except one—the issue of immigration, on which they are more reactionary than anyone. The reason for this is they argue that there are six billion people on the planet now, and who is the enemy of the environment? Who is the enemy of clean air, clean water, all the dwindling animal species? Well, it's us. Us, human beings. Our species. And this is an element of the book which is very important and has been overlooked. There is this population pressure on the world in all the industrial nations, not simply the United States. England, Germany, and France all have huge influxes of immigrants, and I'm wondering, what does this mean and how are people going to deal with it? I think ultimately, as you see in The Tortilla Curtain, it may simply exacerbate racist tendencies.
What research did you do to prepare for the writing of The Tortilla Curtain?
It may sound silly, but I've always felt an affection for Mexico and Mexican culture. I grew up in New York, as you may know, and the language I studied from eighth grade on was Spanish. In fact, the only language I can speak besides English is Spanish. I've always been attracted to the culture, and even before I moved to California I had traveled in Mexico and Central America. When I decided to write this book, I knew that I had to see one thing only. And that was the fence at the border. So I went back to Tijuana, where I hadn't been for some years, and spent the day there. I talked to people. I walked along the fence. I saw people waiting to climb over the fence with little plastic bags with everything they owned in them. I saw the border guards eyeing me suspiciously from the other side. I saw the huge fence the U.S. is building out into the water, and so on, just to get a feel for that again and see what it's like. And it's a real war zone, it's a real disaster, Tijuana, let me tell you.
The search for the American dream is a theme that resounds throughout The Tortilla Curtain. Do you think there is such a thing as the American dream?
I've addressed this throughout all of my work, our material obsession, all the stuff I've written about eating and how much we have and the surfeit of things; my story "Filthy with Things," for instance. What is the American dream? Well, the American dream is, "you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you make it, you have a house, you live in the suburbs, and you drive a new car." What is that? That is a material dream. If you have nothing, then you have material dreams. Presumably, if you have an education and you have enough to eat, then you can have aesthetic dreams or humanistic dreams. Easy for me to say. I have every material thing I could want. I didn't become a writer to make money. I became a writer because that is my obsession and that's how I view the world. As a novelist, my job is to try to inhabit people of any culture, to be a person of another sex, or another race, or another ethnic group. I think it helps me to understand them, and it helps the reader to understand them, too.
What writers do you admire? Have any of them influenced your work?
I admire hundreds of writers of the past and present and many, many of them have influenced my work. A writer who has influenced me with regard to this type of book is Steinbeck because I'm re-examining his ethos, as we said. In terms of satire, people like Flannery O'Connor and Evelyn Waugh have been influential on me, writers who are sort of angry about the way things are happening in society, and so they hold up certain behaviors to ridicule.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a historical novel entitled Riven Rock about the psychopathology of love. It's set in my new hometown of Santa Barbara, and it deals with actual historical figures. The story centers around Stanley McCormick, the son of the man who invented the reaper, and his wife, Katherine Dexter. It's quite a wonderful and extraordinary love story.