T. Coraghessan Boyle; Viking, 355 pages, $23.95
The Tortilla Curtain is a variant on the baffled-middle-aged-man novel; this time, Mr. Midlife is a liberal in crisis. And where better to have a crisis than Southern California, the Land of Paranoia?

The liberal in question is Delaney Mossbacher, a NYC transplant living in posh Topanga Canyon. His wife peddles expensive real estate while he writes a nature column, hikes in the wilderness surrounding their home and returns in time to pick her child up from school and fix dinner.

He gets up in arms against gating off their community, playing the token liberal at neighborhood meetings. Delaney swims through life unchallenged until he hits a Mexican on the road, buys him off with $20 and plunges into a spiraling resentment of immigrants with each successive assault endured by his white Acura (license plate: PILGRIM). His live-and-let-live philosophy becomes further twisted to the right with each immigrant incident, until his wrath and lack of understanding warp him beyond all sense. He can't be an old-school liberal and live his cozy life, so he chooses to protect his standard of living at the expense of other living things -- like the Mexican immigrants who seem to have gone unnoticed prior to their contact with his car.

Tortilla is also -- and primarily -- the story of Candido and Amrica Rincon, the man Pilgrim hits and his young wife, who are camping in the canyon. Candido and Amrica are poster children for every disaster that might possibly befall a pair of illegals, from the minute they pay someone to get them across the border and are attacked on the other side. The couple live amid a constant barrage of misfortune and physical hardship, and poor Candido has a number of run-ins with Pilgrim after the initial accident. In fact, he becomes the demon poster child of Pilgrim's wrath; to Candido, however, Pilgrim is just another of the many gabacho demons who make his life difficult.

Boyle takes a look at both sides of the curtain, juxtaposing white xenophobia against the illegals' desire to work their asses off just to survive in a hostile environment; his characterization of the Rincons makes them very human, while the Mossbachers are saved from our contempt only because they fall so far beneath it. This isn't a great book, but it holds a certain interest at a time when keeping the Other out is becoming an increasingly big business.

-- Maureen McClarnon

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