The Tortilla Curtain by TC Boyle

Although it was published in 1995, TC Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain could not be more relevant today. He tells parallel stories of affluent Americans seeking refuge from L.A. in the canyons beyond its perimeter and indigent immigrants also living in those canyons–but not in beautiful homes–while trying to make a life and a family on a day laborer’s wages and at the mercy of nature, which is not very merciful.

Cándido and América come from Tepotzlan, an enchanting town in Morelos not that far from Mexico City I happen to know fairly well. She is 17. He is in his early 30s. They have entered the U.S. with no formalities, are brutalized in passage, and barely survive on minimal food and in minimal shelter.

Delaney is a naturalist and his wife Kyra is a realtor. He’s a liberal environmentalist who gradually turns against what he, and others, feel is the endless invasion of what Donald Trump would call crooks, murderers, and rapists.

The canyons surrounding L.A. are not “better” than Tepotzlan. They are not more beautiful, welcoming, or special, but they are associated with American wealth, and that’s what draws Mexicans without visas to the U.S.   Boyle describes Cándido and América’s plight poignantly, the insults to their dignity and their dreams,their desperation,imagination, and fortitude.

Boyle is less kind to Kyra and Delaney, self-absorbed and convinced of the rightness of their wealth and their commitment to pristine nature, far from L.A.’s freeways.

Quite skillfully Boyle engineers a plot that generates lots of truths about what both couples feel toward one another, but he tells a tale that is very difficult to resolve.

Today (November, 2015), we are witnessing the continuing migration of economic and political refugees from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa into Europe. Their circumstances,and Europe’s problems, are extreme, but anyone who knows the U.S.-Mexico border knows that our two countries have been experiencing extreme migratory difficulties for decades.

As a diplomat many years ago I had responsibility for certain aspects of U.S.-Mexican border relations. My mandate stretched from Tijuana to Brownsville. I watched Mexicans and others cross into the U.S. at night using infrared binoculars, I visited maquiladoras, universities, elementary schools, city halls, environmental disasters, and the searing, bleached wastes of the desert on which Trump says he will build a beautiful 2,000 mile wall. (This is really, really insulting to the intelligence of the American electorate, by the way. It’s shameless buffoonery.)

Boyle masterfully gets at all this in fictional terms. He depicts the resentments and struggles  in his characters’ lives and circumstances with strong, vivid, accurate writing. In the process, he dramatizes  the essentially unresolvable dilemmas of human migration between the Third World and the First.

What we see in Europe these days is mind boggling, but it is more or less a tenth of what has transpired between Mexico and the U.S for the last five decades.  If it is true, and I really don’t know that it is, that we have 12 million non-citizen migrants in the U.S. from south of the border, think of how that would look should it make the nightly news on an ongoing basis.  But unless a conservative, ill-informed and unrealistic (not to mention heartless) politician is out there throwing red meat to his equally conservative, ill-informed and unrealistic supporters, this wave of humanity is only sporadically covered.

Attitudes change in the border zone depending how close you are to the actual line of demarcation. People in Tijuana and San Diego don’t look at migration the same way that people in Hermosillo and Calabasas look at it. The same is true when you think of El Paso and Juarez in contrast to Monterrey and Austin.  The border zone proper, 25 miles or so on either side, is a world unto itself, comes up with its own solutions, and begs for and seldom receives adequate resources from the federal government.  Deeper in either the U.S. and Mexico, the migration phenomenon becomes more alien, spooky, and threatening.  Delaney in Boyle’s novel does a marvelous job of totally misinterpreting Cándido. He’s constantly wrong, which is not to say Cándido really has any idea what he’s doing.

The problem is survival, it’s miscommunication, it’s cultural and linguistic differences, it’s need on the one side, surfeit on the other.

I think it’s best that novels do not try to propose policy solutions. Boyle avoids this. He looks at human quandaries and makes them real for the reader. Then it’s up to the reader to decide: is the way we  run this world the right way?

Probably not.








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The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

The Brooklyn Follies is a so-so novel by Paul Auster, narrated by his lead character, Nathan Glass. Nathan is a recently divorced cancer-survivor who moves from the suburbs to Brooklyn where he does not expect to have life impose any fresh adventures on him…but it does. These adventures are driven by a nephew and a niece and a grand-niece and folks in the neighborhood (booksellers and waitresses) who are no less interesting or plausible than most people in life but not compelling in fiction.

Nathan’s narrative voice probably is the novel’s chief limitation. He reminds me of some of Saul Bellow’s narrators but without the edge, panic, and mania. Everything he relates flows fluidly through the pages but is full of hackneyed phrases and cliches and forced witticisms. The nicest of guys,he sees a lot of good in other people, and as they get into jams, he does what he can to help them out, sometimes by listening, sometimes by taking actions. But this is a loose book. Certain minor characters are very minor, to the point that they appear and vanish forever in a few pages. Certain major characters, basically all the major characters, lack depth and are conveyed to the reader by means of flashback speechifying and coincidence.

As good as Auster can be, and as noir and cryptic and provocative as he can be, he must have decided to write a novel that was easy on his soul, something he could write and polish and publish quickly.

The book’s appeal is its defect, I suppose: You don’t quite believe what it is telling you, you think a lot is being left out, too much is being wrapped up too neatly, but the tale-teller is a garrulous, energetic and inoffensive fellow and it’s a sort of TV-way of sailing through the pages. So you finish it. But the next time you pick up a Paul Auster novel, you probably will spend a little more time considering whether it is light Auster or dark Auster. If it’s dark Auster, you’ll read it. If it’s light, probably not.

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Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

Go Tell In On The Mountain is a powerful novel that draws its strength from exploring pairs of opposites: black versus white; south versus north; country versus city; grace versus damnation; heaven versus hell; male versus female; strength versus weakness; hatred versus love; the world of God and the world of humankind … and I could go on.

Baldwin published this novel over sixty years ago and managed with a kind of headlong mastery to interweave the tales of rebellious children, suffering mothers, a hypocritical father, aunts and neighbors into a single tapestry that essentially tells the tale of how life was for blacks in his lifetime, how much they needed each other, how alienated they were in America and how dependent they were on God, the prophets, the Bible and Jesus.

This is a sensuous book, written in explosive language about explosive things. As I read it I asked myself how well one must know the Bible to appreciate it. The climax, for instance, comes with the spiritual rebirth of a 14-year-old John couched in the terms of the Book of Revelation. So there’s a cultural idiom and background here that in our increasingly secular society might go right over many heads; but the sheer force of the prose, the elegance of the images (and their terror), might also provide the kind of electric shock needed to generate understanding without literal knowledge.

Baldwin’s decision to give John over to God surprised me somewhat. John had a father, Gabriel, whom he justifiably hated and a brother (a half-brother, we find out) with whom he was deeply out of step. So John is full of negatives and resistance. He wants to be free, not impounded within another domain, however glorious, ruled over by an inscrutable paternal figure. But Baldwin carries this off in an interesting cry of commitment perhaps not so much to the Lord as to John himself, a boy become man with a future that will be his own, not chattel to his father.

Does Baldwin remain relevant today? Well, powerful literature always remains relevant; that’s my conviction. But I also think that in exploring the deep, overwhelming oppression and alienation and fear and anger that blacks of 50 and 75 years ago experienced, Baldwin gives us insight into persisting questions of oppression, alienation, fear, and anger today. He was not writing about a world that since his time has undergone massive transformation, despite a black president and a growing black middle class. Hard won progress definitely has been won, but we see at the University of Missouri and in Ferguson and Charleston and Baltimore signs of tension, distress, violence and despair that are still too much with us.

Curiously, whites appear only a few times in this novel; they don’t come off well (associated with a brutal killing) but they don’t need to be highlighted to take their place in the long list of oppositions I cited at the outset of this review. There has to be something on the other side of the squalor and suffering these characters experience, and it is clearly is a world of opportunity they are so denied that they turn, instead, to spiritual salvation, more or less writing off their chances in this world, a world run by whites, not blacks.

This is one of the most powerful elements in Go Tell It On The Mountain: the way it insistently explores frailties within the black community. These characters are lonely and adrift in a hostile world, but they really look inside themselves for answers, hold themselves accountable, are realistic about what they have done or have not done to make the most of their constrained circumstances.

Baldwin will always be worth reading for the power of his insight into character and the human condition. He wrote about people who were self-contradictory and placed under enormous stress without losing track of their inherent, and precious, dignity.

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Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford

It would be churlish to deny that Frank Bascombe, the narrator and perpetual victim of this book of interconnected stories, is funny.He’s funny about everything and at 68, retired in a town that seems like Princeton, N.J. to me (though he calls it Haddon), more or less has a right to be. In this fourth “Frank Bascombe” book, he has earned his stripes and scars, delights in mocking life, tries to stay on the outskirts of suburban disaster, and is plagued by ex-wives and friends and customers who won’t just die and leave him in peace so he can contemplate everything tacky, faux, imported, oversized, undernourished and hurricane-wrecked (Hurricane Sandy is the thematic backdrop to this book) about the United States.

A few weeks ago I went to an event where Richard Ford read from this book and answered questions about it and the writing life in general.  I asked him why poor Frank was so bitter. Ford didn’t agree that Frank is bitter.  He’s just bemused, wise in the travesties of the world, and acerbic. Maybe Ford is right. Either way, the point is that these tales are platforms for Frank to carry on in exquisite detail about the carnival of insignificance that is central New Jersey in these early decades of the 21st century.  Things that might hurt Frank don’t really hurt, he assures us; marriages that dried up just dried up, nothing more to it; fake Tudor houses are fine, just fake; and one of the last things to shrink when a man gets very old sometimes is his most useless, refractory organ, tick-tocking between his legs in a permanently dripping fugue state, annoyingly posing as if it could rise again but never will.

The writing in this book clearly is a version of John Updike’s suburbia, but the difference is that Updike, for whatever reason (probably his primary narcissism), genuinely loved the commercial excrescences of the drive to make a buck that causes suburbia to keep reinventing itself on worse and worse terms. Ford can be wonderfully lyrical and arresting as he ventriloquizes through Frank Bascombe, but he’s not in love with the shallowness of American affluence; he doesn’t see the spiritual in dreck that Updike, a devout sort of man, found irresistible and redeeming.  Updike wrote as if he knew this joke of contemporary culture was nothing more than a way station on the pathway to transcendence. Ford, or again, Frank Bascombe, comes up short in pushing through folly to faith.

This is not really a criticism of Ford; it’s just a fact of his character’s temperament, worldview, and experience.  He’s not Updike in that he’s more of a snarky realist.  He’s also, and this is probably a strength, more explicit in his judgments, and he provides ten thousand things to think about as he waxes wise.  This collection reads fast. It’s crystal clear, great conversation, as it were, or a great monologue.  Let Me Be Frank With You serves as a kind guidebook to existence in the aftermath of a hurricane that must mean something . . . but probably doesn’t.

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The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

I’ve been carrying around The Collected Stories of  Katherine Anne Porter for almost four decades without reading them, just one of the books I kept passing over as I took them out of shipping boxes in state after state, country after country. Recently I read a memoir by Reynolds Price in which he said that she had written stories of the highest order, equal to Chekhov, Faulkner, Joyce and others. So I went looking for her collected stories in this new house of ours and found them right where I had placed them, fully intending to leave them there until we moved somewhere else and took them with us again.

Now I’ve read them and would say that Price had it right. There are stories in this collection–“The Cracked Looking-Glass,” “Noon Wine,” “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”–as good as stories can get.

Porter was born in Texas in 1890 and moved around quite a bit for the next 90 years. She wrote tales of farm children in Texas, communists in Russia, Irish immigrants in Connecticut, and rootless Europeans in  Berlin that all have exceptional authenticity. “The Leaning Tower,” written in Berlin in 1931, is as close to anything I know predicting the catastrophe of Nazism before it reached its most virulent state.

The power of Porter’s stories lies not so much in their plots or “what happens” as in the firm power of her commanding sentences. She is amazingly able to capture psychological inflections in a few words or sum up the essence of a stage of life or convey the hardness of heart an old woman feels toward her old husband, whom she indifferently abandons.  These sentences are stories in themselves and raise questions about the genre overall. Good writing is good writing, short or long.

In a marvelous, multi-part tale called “The Old Order,” Porter paints an age through characters and generations not through plot. The tale goes nowhere and  yet its portraiture is so exacting that it works beautifully in its peculiarly wandering, discursive way. It’s hard to imagine a literary journal publishing it today because it is so long and pointless; by the same token, it is so superbly written that it is hard to imagine an editor not breaking all the rules and simply surrendering to the story, giving it the space it needs to be what it is, more or less the fictional equivalent of a Chekhov play.

Porter  remembered what she saw in train compartments, kitchens, restaurants, and old graveyards; she then recorded those impressions accurately, never letting the virtue of brevity force her into the betrayal of neglecting a telling detail. In a way she wrote stories the way D.H. Lawrence wrote stories, letting them blossom like an English garden, full of interesting things whose theme was totality more than unity.  She was apparently unaffected by the modernist age in which she lived, but she wasn’t old-fashioned.There’s too much spice and candor in her work for that–no covering up the sins and passions and pettinesses of characters who are not at all more heroic or intriguing than the person sitting across from you on a subway car, but no less compelling, either.

Thematically, there is a lot of disillusion and death in her work, but it is unsentimental stuff, not tragic stuff.  Why wouldn’t life wear a person out? Why wouldn’t it scare a child? Why wouldn’t it make a mother refuse to assume the blame for how her twelve children turned out?

Hats off to Reynolds Price for reminding me why I’ve been carting this book around all these years.

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Until Proven Innocent by Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson

This book is a laboriously researched (but too long)  study of the unfounded rape indictments of three Duke University students in 2006. It is a tale of prosecutorial abuse, police incompetence/complicity, university spinelessness, and stomach-turning undergraduate excess that culminated in a district attorney’s disgrace and a dismissal of charges–after the students had been hounded out of school, subjected to faculty and student vituperation, and pilloried in local and national media for a crime they did not commit.

The authors don’t hide the fact that they have contempt for the political correctness that led to a widely accepted premise of guilty until proven innocent. Curiously, one of the main villains in the story, Durham, N.C. District Attorney Mike Nifong, receives extensive attention while remaining something of a blank. He seized on the rape allegation–virtually encouraged and developed it–to help him win votes in an election campaign. Clearly he was an arrogant, duplicitous prosecutor, but it’s still difficult to understand his reality-denying downward spiral, bad judgment, cynicism, and self-destructive actions.

Duke is a nationally prominent, well-endowed university, so this episode made news, generating a media loop that spun around and around for almost a year. But  Nifong ultimately could not hide all the exculpatory evidence he had long kept from the defense, and he ceased to be a local hero for prosecuting privileged white students who did not do what he, and their accuser, said they did. Nifong had the case taken out of his hands, then the North Carolina bar association drove him out of the legal profession.

For more details, read the book. It is chock-full of details, most of which are depressing but appear grounded in fact.

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A Whole New Life by Reynolds Price

A Whole New Life by Reynolds Price is the amazing tale of his intense four year struggle with a spinal cancer that left him paraplegic and subjected him to excruciating pain that he eventually learned to banish to the periphery of his consciousness through a mixture of hypnosis and biofeedback, not through the disorienting medications prescribed for him by chemically-oriented physicians.

Surgeries and radiation therapies undoubtedly saved Price’s life but they rendered it all but intolerable. A renowned novelist, essayist and playwright who also taught English literature and writing at Duke, Price had a rich life to lose in his early 50s, and that’s just about what happened.

Attended by friends and caregivers below the level of M.D., he struggled mightily as his lower half ceased functioning and his upper spine scorched him like scorpion’s tail. This account is gruesome but its horror is mitigated to some extent by Price’s faith in his dream life and the obvious fact that what he describes is something he survived–otherwise he could not have written such a book.

One especially valuable aspect of this medical tale is that it isn’t told by a doctor. That makes it easier for mere mortals to identify with, and it also generates some well-deserved criticisms of doctors who were cold, clinical, and insensitive toward Price. He had a surgeon who gradually revealed how much he cared, but he also an oncologist who, like a number of doctors, fled from his failure to meet Price’s needs.

As Price’s legs and excretory functions spun out of control and the pain exceeded 10 on a scale that should have stopped at 10, he spent long months under the ineffective spell of drugs like methadone, dangerous in itself. When his feet and legs swelled to the point of being squishy he was given diuretics that didn’t work well either. What he needed was a pair of pressurized leggings that would push the fluids up out of his legs so that they could be eliminated.

Somehow, at the halfway point in this journey (and he didn’t know he was halfway home, he thought he might never reach home), Price managed to take up writing and then teaching again. And then he was bumped out of traditional Western medical care into the hands of the aforementioned hypnotist and biofeedback specialist. They, in company with unfailingly helpful nurses, orderlies and personal aides, focused on the mind element of the mind-body duality, and that’s what gave Price control over his life, if not his lower half, again. He lived on to write not only this book but many others.

I should think almost anyone would find this book fascinating. It’s richly written, inherently dramatic, and emotionally compelling. A few doctors, perhaps many doctors, might argue that with their caseloads they simply can’t be fully available to every patient–their job is to prescribe, cut, radiate, and so forth. But this is a lame excuse. We’ve all known compassionate doctors who recognize the anxiety we feel when confronted with the mysteries of our own bodies. The point is to listen; being cut loose by the doctor who abandons us and moves on to the next case is the unkindest cut of all.

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