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'The Tortilla Curtain': Voltaire in an L.A. canyon


"The Tortilla Curtain," by T. Coraghessan Boyle. New York: Viking, 355 pages. $23.95

It says a lot about T. Coraghessan Boyle's new novel that so many generations of great satirists come to mind when reading it -- from Swift to Twain to Waugh to Woody Allen. Boyle specifically evokes Voltaire: "The Tortilla Curtain" presents a pair of protagonists, one rich, one poor; the poor one, a Mexican illegal immigrant is, tellingly, named "Cndido." And by the end, the picaresque adventures of the new Candide - woeful, well-intentioned, unbelievably unlucky - stack up very well indeed alongside the revered 18th-century predecessor. For Boyle is one of those rare and unmistakable authors who can make us laugh at the tragic content of life.

Voltaire's Candide concludes with a kernel of resigned wisdom: amid the uncontrollable upheavals of existence, the best we can hope to do is "cultivate our garden." In "The Tortilla Curtain," set in Los Angeles in a span of months between the dry and rainy seasons, retreat to the enclosed garden, a private space where all is well, has become impossible.

So we find a group of affluent professionals - among them Delaney Mossbacher, the second of the two central figures - who inhabit a Topanga Canyon development, Arroyo Seco Estates, that once seemed a safe distance from urban terrors. But lately indigents have pitched campsites in nearby hills, while coyotes brazenly jump eight-foot chain-link fences to prey on household pets. As Delaney's real-estate agent wife has found, "Since the riots . . . dozens of couples . . . wanted something out of the way, something rustic, rural, safe - something removed from people of whatever class and color . . . [b]rown people. Colored people. People in saris, serapes, and kaffiyehs." Delaney watches his neighbor erect a gate, a fence, and finally a cinder-block wall - "like a medieval city or something," he observes - hoping to build something high enough to keep everything out. But this is L.A.; eventually the canyon is visited by fire and flood, both notoriously indifferent to walls.

Hiding in the canyon underbrush, repeatedly moving their pitiful campsite to avoid discovery, Cndido and his 17-year-old girlfriend, America, represent the human face of what cannot be kept at bay. When Delaney accidentally runs down and nearly kills Cndido, the alien is much too terrified to go a doctor, let alone the police. For his part, Delaney cannot quite buy the glib reassurances of the book's Pangloss figure, a lawyer named Jack Jardine, that Cndido staged the incident to extort insurance money. As Delaney loses his sense of well-being and ultimately his sanity, Cndido and America, repeatedly brutalized and always destitute, cling to the margins of Arroyo Seco's comfort and prosperity, sheltering beneath a stolen tarpaulin here, dining off a dumpster or pet cat there. They can't give up; they have nowhere to go.

The triumph of the book lies in its depiction of Cndido's and America's stoic endurance, the unkillable human spirit that allows them to reach out a helping hand at the end. We feel their suffering but, thanks to Boyle's unfaltering stylistic control, the authority of his coldly comic vision, we are spared being &L; overwhelmed. The book is fun to read; it flies along. "The Tortilla Curtain" fully rewards the reader who is, like the author, both literate and gutsy.

* Anita Finkel is associate editor of Collier's Encyclopedia as well as editor and publisher of the New Dance Review. She has worked for Ballet News, Charles Scribner's Sons and Barron's.

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