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  • Tortillas from GrapesT. Coraghessan Boyle Reimagines Steinbeck’s Social-Protest Novel

T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain begins with an epigraph taken from The Grapes of Wrath—“They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable”—an intimation that he will probe the same issues Steinbeck explored and ask similar questions of his readers. Published fifty-five years apart, these novels have become companion pieces, telling virtually the same story of abuse and dispossession. Just as the Joads represent an entire population of Dust Bowl Americans, who migrate from nothingness into nothingness, facing horrors in California just as they had in their home states—unemployment, poverty, starvation and inhuman living conditions—Boyle shows that these historical events are not specific to the 1930s. In contemporary California, large populations of Mexicans and Latin Americans immigrate with a dream, arriving only to find despair. Like Steinbeck, Boyle exposes their distressing realities. Both Steinbeck and Boyle were met with harsh criticism for their exposés that hit too close to home. Boyle, then, picks up where the earlier writer leaves off, devoted to continuing Steinbeck’s vital mission to bring wrong to light and, hopefully, to instigate social change.


Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, The Tortilla Curtain, T. C. Boyle, social-protest novel

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain opens with a memorable epigraph from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—lines in which a California bystander sneers at the misery of the migrant Oakies: “They ain’t human. [End Page 151] A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.” This epigraph connects John Steinbeck’s work with Boyle’s story that follows, suggesting that these novelists ask similar questions and probe similar issues as they portray the negative reception migrant workers receive in California. Fifty-five years after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain revisits Steinbeck’s concern with social protest and the treatment of migrants, linking the two as politically aligned novels. By portraying the plight of impoverished migrant workers and championing their cause, both Steinbeck and Boyle call for social change.

Boyle’s intention, however, is not to overshadow The Grapes of Wrath, but to reimagine the novel’s concerns in a contemporary setting. Thus, he shares Steinbeck’s purpose to reveal injustice and alleviate migrant suffering while placing the story within the framework of a new era and addressing a contemporary audience. As Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize speech maintains, “The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement” (691). Here Steinbeck proclaims the high purpose of the social-protest novel—an ideal which Boyle embraces. Boyle, therefore, takes up his story where Steinbeck’s leaves off, stating his intention to follow his predecessor’s lead: “This book obviously takes off from The Grapes of Wrath [sic]. Steinbeck had a social commitment. None could argue with that. My idea in this book is to look at Steinbeck’s ethos of 1939 from the vantage point of 1995 to see how it plays in a very different world” (qtd. in Lappin 16). While Boyle does not specify exactly how he updates Steinbeck’s vision for a new world, his creation of characters, setting, and theme ultimately reveals that the power of his social protest depends on drawing parallels between Steinbeck’s text and his own. Thus relying on Steinbeck’s legacy, Boyle uses the novel as a form of communication and protest.

For the author who seeks to comprehend and remember human experience, in his essay on the art of the novel, Milan Kundera discusses the effectiveness of forging comparisons and drawing parallels: “Why did we have to be born?” he writes, “And who are we? And what is our land, our terra nostra? We will not understand much if we are content to plumb the enigma of identity with only the help of introspective memory. To understand we must compare, . . . must put identity to the test of comparisons” (161). In a similar vein, Boyle draws comparisons to The Grapes of Wrath. Further, as a social-protest novel, The Grapes of Wrath has been compared to classic works within that genre. In Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America, to illustrate, Thomas C. Foster writes that The Grapes of Wrath “is the American War and Peace. [End Page 152] The American Middlemarch. The American Les Miserables. And why? . . . It made us see the world differently” (196). And Foster’s observations fit as well with The Tortilla Curtain as with The Grapes of Wrath:

There are other works that can bring us into direct contact with human misery, with the devastating effects of poverty and dashed hopes and ruined dreams, with exploitation by the powerful, with the rigged game where moneyed interests always win because they hold the cards. . . . But nothing makes us feel the pain of the Okies, trapped by circumstance and tricked by false promises of a Golden West, the way John Steinbeck does in The Grapes of Wrath.


Rooting his novel in Steinbeck’s narrative, Boyle creates a new protest using both a traditional format and revolutionary technique. Kundera explains such a paradoxical achievement: “The passion for comparison in all novelists is at once the desire for some air, some space, some breathing room: the desire for new forms” (162). As Kundera also asserts, however, “No great novelist can exit from the history of the novel. But behind the sameness in form hides different purposes” (161). Thus Boyle reimagines Steinbeck in order to create his own novel about disillusionment, discrimination, and human struggle.

Boyle’s didactic intent may be uncomfortable for those who realize that even though the 1930s are safely in the past, the world has not progressed very far. But the injustices Steinbeck details in The Grapes of Wrath were not merely a product of the Great Depression, for they still exist. Boyle parallels Steinbeck’s “Okies” with California’s current migrant population, revealing that prejudice and mistreatment of an entire culture of people are present-day concerns. It is not surprising, therefore, that some critics refuse to face that reality and recoil from Boyle’s parallels between his novel and The Grapes of Wrath. In truth, reviewers do not even acknowledge how closely the novels are tied. Scott Spencer asserts, “Viking has somehow got the idea it has another ‘Grapes of Wrath’ on its hands” (1). And Jane Birnbaum mocks Viking’s comparison between the two novels: “On the back of the review copy of ‘The Tortilla Curtain,’ the blurb calls it ‘a “Grapes of Wrath” for the ’90s.’ Puh-leeze.” Birnbaum continues, “Why the appropriation of Steinbeck? The grapes of wrath are dearly owned, never borrowed”—arguing that Steinbeck’s novel is too precious to be revisited or reimagined (2). Critics maintain, then, that The Grapes of Wrath is a benchmark that Boyle fails to achieve and that The Tortilla Curtain falls far short of the artistry and power of Steinbeck’s masterpiece. Their criticism, however, does not focus on the quality of Boyle’s novel. Rather than disparaging [End Page 153] Boyle’s aesthetics or complaining that he is not as effective a writer as Steinbeck, critics and reviewers dislike how closely Boyle’s story mirrors that of the Joads and migrants in The Grapes of Wrath. Boyle’s protagonists, the Rincóns, expose the reality of the devastated lives of migrant workers during the Dust Bowl as they are tragically repeated in the lives of California’s contemporary undocumented workers.

As The Grapes of Wrath illustrates, the Joad family’s descent into desolation represents the experience of the entire population of Dust Bowl Americans—desperate people who feel compelled to leave their homes because they lack food, work, and resources. Their migration leads them to California, where they face the same horrors of unemployment, poverty, and starvation and inhumane living conditions are exacerbated. As Mary C. Waters and Reed Ueda observe, during the 1930s, the experience of California’s Mexican population paralleled that of the “Okies”:

The Great Depression . . . also marked a time in American history that Mexican immigrants like Boyle’s Candido [sic] were decidedly unwelcome since they were considered contributors to the country’s economic woes; as many as 750,000 Mexicans and their American-born children either voluntarily repatriated or were involuntarily deported during the 1930s.


A half century later, Boyle’s novel revisits the narrative of these immigrants, making relevant and current their story that may have seemed historically bound to the 1930s.

Since The Tortilla Curtain’s publication in 1995, teeming populations of immigrants have come to this country. According to Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, “In 2013, approximately 41.3 million immigrants lived in the United States, an all-time high for a nation historically built on immigration” (1). Of these, “Mexican-born immigrants accounted for approximately 28 percent, . . . making them by far the largest immigrant group in the country” (3). Additionally, a significant percentage of all immigrants are here illegally. Zong and Batalova cite the United States Department of Homeland Security’s report, showing that over the past five years, “an estimated 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants resided in the United States as of January 2012 compared to 11.5 million in January 2011” (3). This story becomes specific to California since “the highest share of the 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants resided in California (28 percent),” and Los Angeles County ranks first among the ninety-four counties where “two-thirds of unauthorized immigrants” live [End Page 154] (Zong and Batalova 13). As a result, present-day undocumented immigrants residing in California and looking for work and a livelihood are analogous to the Okies who came before them. As William Langwiesche notes in his study of contemporary migrant patterns, “Lacking the contacts and knowledge that would allow them to reach safer ground, they crouch instead in farm sheds and camouflaged scrap-wood shacks, and bear the weight of California’s displeasure. There are too few of them to form an underclass, but they are the people who now occupy the lowest place in the entire United States” (138). And, like Steinbeck before him, then, Boyle embraces the social-protest novel as a means by which to expose the distressing realities of this migrant population.

Fig. 1. Migrant family stopped along highway to fix flat tire. Photographer unknown, 1930s. Collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.
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Fig. 1.

Migrant family stopped along highway to fix flat tire. Photographer unknown, 1930s.

Collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

From beginning to end, the unending struggle for survival is the demon that haunts both the Steinbeck and the Boyle novels. For example, both novels highlight the lack of work and the scarcity of food in their respective historical eras. Numerous passages in The Grapes of Wrath depict the men in Oklahoma who are desperate for something to do with their idle hands: “The squatting men looked down again. What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of [End Page 155] the crop—we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an’ ragged” (33). Later, when the Joads reach California, the men’s desperation deepens as they discover the truth about the working conditions in the popularly designated “Golden State”:

“Takes three thousan’ men for two weeks when them peaches is ripe. Got to have ’em or them peaches’ll rot. So what do they do? They send out han’bills all over hell. They need three thousan’, an’ they get six thousan’. They get them men for what they wanta pay. If ya don’ wanta take what they pay, goddamn it, theys a thousan’ men waitin’ for your job.”


Similarly, key passages in The Tortilla Curtain echo The Grapes of Wrath so adeptly that they almost seem to be written by Steinbeck himself:

Later, Cándido stood on the street corner with two hundred other men. . . . The talk was grim. . . . There was no work. Too many had come up from the South, and if there was work for them all six years ago, now there were twenty men for every job and the bosses knew it and cut the wage by half. Men were starving. Their wives and children were starving. They’d do anything for work, any kind of work, and they’d take what the boss was paying and get down on their knees and thank him for it.


Because he has been taken in by the allure of the American Dream, like the Joads before him, Cándido discovers the hard way that the assurances of opportunities in the “promised land” of California are a farce.

But the in The Grapes of Wrath, the dream of California has tantalized the Joads and their fellow migrants, for they have been deceived by “the owner men,” who advise, “Why don’t you go on west to California? There’s work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why, there’s always some kind of crop to work in” (34). When the family buys into the dream and prepares to leave, Grampa cries, “Come time we get to California I’ll have a big bunch a grapes in my han’ all the time, a-nibblin’ off it all the time, by God!” (103). And Pa asserts, “We had hard times here. ’Course it’ll be all different out there—plenty work, an’ ever’thing nice an’ green, an’ little white houses an’ oranges growin’ aroun’” (109). The dream differs very little from 1939 to 1995: hope for abundant food, adequate shelter, and a day’s honest work. [End Page 156]

In The Tortilla Curtain, Cándido and América have made their own perilous trek to California, like the Joads envisioning abundance. América dreams of fresh fruit: “Do you know what I would do for a mango now—or even an orange?” (28). Because Cándido is unable to work after being hit by a car, América imagines earning enough money for the two of them. She plans to “pick lettuce . . . or fruit maybe.” Cándido retorts: “Lettuce? Fruit? This isn’t Bakersfield, this is L.A. There’s no fruit here. No cotton, no nothing” (28). When Cándido complains that Los Angeles has nothing but houses, dripping with fruit that the rich people never eat, América fires back, “I want one of those houses, . . . a clean white one made out of lumber that smells like the mountains, with a gas range and a refrigerator and maybe a little yard so you can plant a garden and make a place for the chickens. That’s what you promised me, didn’t you?” (28–29). And América’s dreams of a home in California echo those of Ma Joad fifty years earlier.

The Grapes of Wrath ends in chaos and uncertainty, with the final outcome of the migrants’ quest left unknown. Since contemporary migrants are still mired in uncertainty, like Steinbeck’s elements of nature that reflect human stories, Boyle’s novel opens with images of despair and a tone of desolation. While Steinbeck’s social protest details the cruel and inhumane mistreatment of the Joads, the immediate problems lie in uncontrollable natural elements—first a drought and then a flood. Chaotic nature seems to have a fatalistic power as dust and rain shape the migrants’ destinies. Like Steinbeck’s Joads, Boyle’s Rincóns face brutal natural forces which fuel the problems that ultimately shape their lives. Since natural disaster unfortunately serves to reinforce the unjust social order, portrayals of chaotic nature, then, correlate with the theme of social protest in both novels. That is, the uncontrollable forces of nature contribute to further subjugation of the vulnerable lower classes at the hands of the wealthy. For they are left helpless in the face of mistreatment by the privileged—those with financial stability and security that enables them to weather storms mostly unscathed.

Boyle modernizes natural chaos by opening his novel with a car accident, violently ramming his two protagonists together. Nature and chaos intersect in Boyle’s first sentence, describing the automobile accident as “the collision of opposing forces” (3). Although this collision refers literally to the bumper of the car and the body of the man it hits, the phrase “opposing forces” evokes images of the more primal forces of nature depicted in both novels. Since they have no adequate shelter, in Grapes, the migrants are affected more by the “opposing forces” of dust and rain than by anything else. Boyle updates this image by enveloping the accident scene in a “fan of dust,” commenting that there was [End Page 157] “nothing there but dust and more dust” (3; 5). Here Boyle first depicts natural forces that are intrinsic to the human disasters his characters will encounter.

Such violent conflation of nature and chaos punctuates both novels. The image of Cándido’s face disfigured in the car accident parallels a late scene in The Grapes of Wrath when Tom Joad’s face is disfigured in a brawl when he retaliates against the man who has killed Casy: “He felt his numb face and nose. The nose was crushed, and a trickle of blood dripped from his chin. He lay still on his stomach until his mind came back” (387). Similarly, Cándido’s automobile accident leaves him disfigured: “a hard crusted scab ran from his jaw to his hairline, his left eye . . . swollen shut and his nose . . . tender to the touch” (24). Thus wounded, both men face a threat to their identity and purpose. To avoid recognition, Tom is forced into the same level of hiding that Cándido experiences every day. In effect, after being “de-faced,” neither Tom nor Cándido can earn money for their families. When Ma asks Tom if he’s in trouble, he answers, “Yeah. . . . In trouble. I can’t go out to work. I got to hide” (389). Likewise, Boyle writes of Cándido, “Any way you looked at it he couldn’t work, not for the time being—hell, he could barely stand. . . . But if he couldn’t work, how would they eat?” (25).

Boyle’s description of Cándido’s face as “bruised and swollen like bad fruit” is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s depiction of Tom. Gregory Meyerson writes that Tortilla Curtain “is packed with allusions to The Grapes of Wrath, and this reference to Candido’s [sic] face as bad fruit is likely another. One of the many ironies characterizing the relation between the two novels, is that much of the space—the beautiful orchards in which the immigrant workers slaved—has been bulldozed to make way for ‘pyromanic suburbanization’” (85). Hence, the disfigurement of each character suggests larger social patterns in which powerful systems destroy the helpless. And if human beings resist and fight back, they are maimed.

Significantly, whereas Tom’s disfigurement occurs toward the end of Grapes, Cándido’s occurs in the opening of Tortilla. In the arc of the narrative, Cándido seems to carry on at the point where Tom leaves off. With much of the treacherous journey already behind him, Cándido is mired in a despairing world of poverty and betrayal. Although Tom and Cándido are not the same character, Cándido is a continuation of Tom who represents the ever-struggling migrant who never finds his way in this new world. Boyle thus reminds readers that the world has not really changed all that much.

Whereas in Grapes dust emblematizes an ecological crisis, in The Tortilla Curtain it signifies a subsistence living, or life on the margins. And Boyle embeds Steinbeck’s images of dust into tragic scenes throughout his novel. For example, [End Page 158] when Cándido’s wife, América, is raped in the canyon, her attacker reaches out for her and slams “into her like some irresistible force, like the car that had slammed into Cándido” (141). He pulls her to the ground, into “the dust that was exactly like flour spread over the trail by some mad baker” (141). As the rape scene evolves, there are continuous references to dust: América’s assailant forces “her face into the floury dust,” and she breathes “the dust” as he leaves her lying face down on the ground (141). Boyle, then, creates a different kind of a “dust bowl.” Although América’s suffering is not an economic crisis, her personal “dust bowl” is just as devastating.

Boyle draws parallels within his narrative by contrasting the migrants’ devastating tragedies with merely inconvenient occurrences in the lives of his white characters. To illustrate, he pairs América’s rape with the theft of the white protagonist’s car. Immediately after two men rape América and leave her abandoned in the dirt—her only dress destroyed and trash discarded onto her naked back—Boyle describes the white protagonist’s reaction to his stolen car: “He felt violated, taken, ripped off—and nobody batted an eyelash” (146). Further, the protagonist suffers “the sense of futility and powerlessness” (146) which engulfs his life as a result of this event. Meyerson comments on Boyle’s ironic comparison between a rape and a carjacking: “This contrast is meant to highlight the distinction between the relatively trivial and the deadly serious” (74).

If América seems to suggest Ma Joad in her silent suffering and perseverance, she can also be seen as a reimagining of Rose of Sharon. Both América and Rosasharn are pregnant—vessels for expectation of new life in California. Hence, both women signify seeds of possible change. Boyle writes, “She was América, hope of the future, his wife, his love, mother-to-be of his first child, the son who was even now taking shape in that secret place inside of her” (24). Although these prospective mothers are stereotypically endowed with mystical female knowledge and insight, as exemplified by their pregnancy, hunger always seems to render them powerless. And the men worry ceaselessly because their wives do not have enough to eat. Pregnancy as the traditional symbol for hope and new life, therefore, is superseded by fear of a treacherous and uncertain future in a world where men are unable to support the family.

Again Boyle’s work parallels Steinbeck’s as both women’s babies perish tragically during floods. Like Steinbeck, Boyle questions the symbol of water as redemptive—cleansing, baptizing, revitalizing. For their characters—the Joads and the Rincóns—water rages and destroys. The rain for which the characters once desperately prayed becomes a flood at the conclusions of both The Grapes of Wrath and The Tortilla Curtain. As the families’ homes, cars, and labor are utterly destroyed by the water, so too are their future generations. [End Page 159] For in both novels, the babies die. Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn, “a blue shriveled little mummy,” never really alive, with no recognized gender, no given name (444). When Steinbeck’s Uncle John (a possible allusion to John the Baptist) is asked to bury the baby, he places it in a box instead—a makeshift coffin—which he then drops into the gushing stream of water. But he gives the corpse a purpose: “Go down an’ tell ’em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ’em that way. That’s the way you can talk. . . . Go on down now, an’ lay in the street. Maybe they’ll know then” (447).

At the end of The Tortilla Curtain, Boyle conveys a similar note of futility. Although América’s baby is born alive, she is “damaged” by blindness—the result of América’s rape earlier in the novel. Ironically, the baby’s name is Socorro—Spanish for “aid” or “assistance”—a name that also denotes a scream, meaning “Help!” or “Emergency!” Socorro lives only briefly, drowned by the terrible flood that destroys her family’s home. Cándido bemoans his loss, describing a harrowing scene: “América was screaming and the baby was screaming and he could hear his own voice raised in a thin mournful drone, and that was nothing compared to the shrieks of the uprooted trees and the nightmarish roar of the boulders rolling beneath them” (353). When Cándido finds América, but not the baby, he cries out, “‘The baby. . . . Where’s the baby?’ She didn’t answer, and he felt the cold seep into his veins, a coldness and a weariness like nothing he’d ever known. The dark water was all around him, water as far as he could see, and he wondered if he would ever get warm again” (355).

That both novels end with drowned babies again reveals the extent to which Boyle aligns himself with Steinbeck. When the symbol of future generations is annihilated, the message carries a deep significance. Meyerson asserts that in Tortilla Flat, “the drowning of the baby in the river, which evokes Uncle John’s release of Rose of Sharon’s dead infant and especially his angry speech, makes very clear who should be the objects of wrath” (90). This is no fairy tale in which the mystical, feminine powers of childrearing and motherhood are somehow strong enough to overcome the odds. When there is no food, no work, and no sense of decency, future generations will suffer and perish. The need for the social-protest novel, therefore, is as urgent for Boyle in 1995 as it was for Steinbeck in 1939. Nevertheless, the endings of both novels offer glimmers of redemption. In Grapes, Rose of Sharon accepts the obligation to save the life of a starving man in the barn where they have sought refuge from the elements, thus giving the Joads an opportunity to proffer the hospitality for which they have been noted throughout the novel: “Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. ‘There!’ she said, ‘There.’ Her hand moved behind his [End Page 160] head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously” (455). In the midst of dire need and the prospect of what seems a wretched future, there is a kind of jubilation in this scene.

In like manner, Boyle’s Cándido experiences a defining moment in the last line of The Tortilla Curtain. Seconds after learning of Socorro’s demise, Cándido has the opportunity to save the life of the drowning Delaney, who has instigated much of his misery. But when Cándido sees “the white face surge up out of the black swirl of the current and the white hand grasping at the tiles,” he does not hesitate to pull him out of the waters (355). As the long-suffering Cándido becomes the savior rather than the avenger, there is a sense of victory in this scene. Nevertheless, Boyle complicates the redemptive moment with an ironic twist. Whereas Rosasharn offers her breast to a stranger, Cándido offers a life-line to a known enemy, Delaney. Kathy Knapp believes that “it is crucial that the two men are not strangers: indeed, though Delaney may fear Candido [sic] as ‘one of them,’ the two men have become oddly intimate, their lives, though wildly different, quite literally on parallel crash courses” (132). Because both the Steinbeck and the Boyle novels careen toward tragedy at a breakneck pace, their redemptive endings are highly significant. Both Rosasharn and Cándido are dispossessed and have suffered much over the death of their babies. Still, they are both resilient, able to rebound from their own tragedies and to save a person’s life. As Knapp observes, despite great tragedy, “Boyle nevertheless offers the possibility of a reimagined, redeemed community” (132).

This theme of redemption is a central characteristic of many social-protest novels. As Howard Zinn writes in American Protest Literature, “Protest literature says to the reader, have hope—you are not alone. And if it does nothing but that, it has done something profoundly important” (517). Similarly, E. Ethelbert Miller maintains that “when power shifts in a society, fightin’ words will always be released. . . . But why can’t we fight for love, nonviolence or peace? Might this be a contradiction? Are these words fightin’ words? I think they are. These words push back against what is wrong in the world. They are not passive terms. Love is always in a battle against hatred” (101). Even though the Joad and Rincón lives are still mired in poverty and pain, therefore, Zinn’s imperative to “have hope” constitutes the last word in both narratives.

A further hallmark of the social-protest novel is its portrayal of the intolerance and oppression of the larger, majority population. To illustrate, the story of Steinbeck’s Joads is portrayed against a larger backdrop of migrant dispossession, mobilized by tyrannical policemen, locals, employers, and landowners. In this tradition of contextualization within an unjust, unfeeling society, [End Page 161] Boyle depicts the Rincóns’ plight against the larger story of white privilege. Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher are Cándido and América’s white, yuppie, successful counterparts. Many of Boyle’s critics find fault with his stereotypical, even cartoonish, portraits of white privilege. Scott Spencer, for example, asks, “Why are we being asked to follow the fates of characters for whom he clearly feels such contempt? Not surprisingly, this is ultimately off-putting.” Spencer continues, “Contempt is a dangerous emotion, luring us into believing that we understand more than we do. Contempt causes us to jeer rather than speak, to poke at rather than touch. Despite his celebrated gifts, T. Coraghessan Boyle may be the most contemptuous of our well-known novelists” (3).

Clearly, however, Boyle’s intentionally elicits his readers’ contempt. The characters of the Mossbachers, for instance, portray grotesquely overblown privilege, with Delaney and Kyra designed to evoke the readers’ dislike. Of necessity, these people must be drawn as contemptible in order for Boyle’s protest novel to call for a fairer social order. The Mossbachers represent the white majority, privileged not only financially but by social standing, thereby providing counterpoints to the Rincóns. Although they may halfheartedly try to do the right thing, this family most often succumbs to selfishness, laziness, and/or conceit. As Heather J. Hicks suggests, “their last name, Mossbacher, clearly marks them as ‘mossbacks’—individuals holding antiquated or reactionary views about the world” (46). This naming, therefore, functions as an instrument by which to underscore the need for social protest.

In vignettes contrasting the privileged and the underprivileged, Boyle makes transparent the need for social change. Delaney, for instance, is a nature writer who describes himself as a “liberal humanist” who enjoys long, thoughtful hikes or meditative overnights in the canyon chaparral (3). In his nature column, he boastfully claims, “I will spend the night not at the prescribed campground . . . but in a more solitary place off the Santa Ynez Canyon Trail, with nothing more elaborate between me and terra firma than an old army blanket and a foam pad” (77). An ersatz follower of Henry David Thoreau, Delaney goes to the woods to be deliberate in communing with nature. But he does not realize the irony of his experience in contrast with that of Cándido, who inhabits the same ravine—camping there every night, crouching in a little corner (in Spanish his last name, Rincón, means corner), and fighting for his survival.

Unconsciously, born of privilege and ignorant of poverty, Delaney and Kyra take for granted all of the basic necessities of life for which Cándido and América yearn. In parallel scenes, the two couples’ experiences chafe ironically against each other. When América yearns for one simple orange in Chapter 2, Chapter 3 opens with Delaney making fresh orange juice: “That was what he [End Page 162] did, every morning, regular as clockwork: squeeze oranges” (Boyle 31). While América accuses Cándido of being unable to buy her a simple home, Delaney and Kyra rush about their large estate in the gated community of “Arroyo Blanco”—ironically decorated in “Rancho White with Navajo trim” (30). The irony of this contrast between stark deprivation and conspicuous consumption is painfully clear. As Hicks points out, the residents in Arroyo Blanco “can choose any of three shades of paint for their house, as long as it is white” (49). Kathy Knapp also observes that “if you live in Arroyo Blanco estates, you are either White, White, or White. Difference is simply not tolerated” (127). Even more ironic, Delaney’s wife, Kyra, spends as much time as possible away from her own house. As a realtor, she sits inside the empty estates she halfheartedly hopes to sell, fantasizing that they are hers.

Further, for all of his assumed insight, Delaney is dangerously clueless. In one of his nature columns, he asserts that “it was crazy to think you could detach yourself from the rest of the world, the world of starvation and loss and the steady relentless degradation of the environment,” but separating himself is exactly what he repeatedly does in the novel (Boyle 32). At the scene of his car accident, Delaney is shocked by the other motorists’ lack of concern for his well-being and amazed by these people who are lost in their own worlds as they sit boxed into their own cars. Still, he himself at times fails to see the “other” as he persistently ignores and pushes people away, keeping them on the periphery of his own existence.

Thus, when he cannot sweep the consequences of the car accident under the rug, Delaney rapidly changes into the angry racist he once claimed to detest—a moral deterioration foreshadowed from the onset. Looking at Cándido’s injured body, Delaney can only see him as a blending of other Mexican men he has seen merely from a psychological distance: fast-food workers, gardeners, day laborers. As he mentally conflates these marginalized workers, he feels “his guilt turn to anger, to outrage” (11). Although he partly knows these feelings are rash and unfair, he is quick to justify his unfeeling response to Cándido’s desperate plight: “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” (11). Even though his wife, Kyra, is shocked by the pittance that Delaney pays Cándido—a mere twenty-dollar bill—his response presages his rapid descent into racism: “I told you—he was Mexican” (15). Kathy Knapp writes that “Delaney’s crass, cruel dismissal of Candido [sic] and his conflation of his victim’s ethnicity with his legal status [End Page 163] suggest what is often hidden: Delaney only manages to get away with his crime easily and cheaply because his victim happens to be Mexican, not white. Thus, he quite literally dispenses with Candido” (124).

Over time, Delaney’s racism escalates. When a wild coyote snatches and consumes one of their tiny white dogs, the Mossbacher family goes mad. Even Delaney, the professional naturalist, doesn’t categorize this event as an environmental consequence of living adjacent to the canyon. For him, it’s the Mexicans’ fault: “This didn’t have to happen. It didn’t. If it wasn’t for those idiots leaving food out for the coyotes” (39). The more exposure Delaney has to his Latino counterparts, the more closed-minded he becomes. Like the antagonists in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Delaney’s fear of the Mexicans, his unwillingness to see them as fellow human beings, and his lack of empathy for the less fortunate ultimately cause his life to unravel.

Initially, Delaney philosophically opposes the proposal to wall in their already-gated community. At the community meeting to discuss the gate, he accuses his neighbor of racism and purposely obstructs the vote, and he explodes with seeming empathy for the migrants’ plight: “I can’t believe you. . . . Do you realize what you’re saying? Immigrants are the lifeblood of this country—we’re a nation of immigrants—and neither of us would be standing here today if it wasn’t” (101). Later in the same chapter, however, when Delaney is hiking in the canyon, he is enraged when he encounters some people speaking Spanish: “He wasn’t alarmed, not exactly—he was too angry for that. All he could think of was the sheriff and getting these people and their garbage heap out of here, of hustling them right back to wherever they’d come from, slums, favelas, barrios, whatever they called them. They didn’t belong here, that was for sure” (116–17). Whereas Delaney intellectually abhors the notion of a wall, in the abstract—when his person and family are affected directly—his priorities shift. And because he does not want to endanger his social connection with his influential neighbors, he decides to support the construction of a wall around his community. Even the irony of bringing in illegal workers to build this wall—the very people it is intended to shut out and exclude—escapes him. Over the course of the novel, Delaney’s moral disintegration stems from his desire for social acceptance, financial and marital security, and the preservation of his carefully fabricated lifestyle. Always, when faced with the opportunity to make a morally and ethically sound decision, Delaney chooses the path of least resistance, placing his own convenience over principle.

Some critics disparage Boyle’s negative portrayals of Delaney and Kyra—characters whom some readers find disturbing—perhaps because their story hits so close to home and is so timely. Disquieting news stories of “coyotes” [End Page 164] at the borders, shadowy deportations in the night, and the near starvation of those seeking refuge in the United States instigate painful awareness of the contemporary realities underlying Boyle’s fiction. Even liberal, open-minded, usually compassionate “liberals” are tempted to look the other way, to turn their backs on such suffering. But, hoping to bring about social change, both Steinbeck and Boyle look closely at the suffering of people and tell their stories with empathy.

On the other hand, other critics find Boyle’s portrayal of the Mossbachers pointed and evocative. For instance, Tom Lappin states that “Boyle’s narrative contrasts the racist paranoia of the well-to-do white community with the immigrants’ helplessness and desperation. It’s a much angrier, more socially resonant work than anything Boyle has tackled before, with obvious intent” (16). Robert Murray Davis finds a similar approach in Steinbeck’s narrative: “One of Steinbeck’s major accomplishments as a polemicist and as a novelist is that he presents us with a picture of life we could not endure, lived by people we could not tolerate for a minute in everyday life, and not only gives us no alternative to seeing them as human but makes us turn against our own kind and ourselves for looking away in distaste” (167). And of Boyle’s novel, Patti Hartigan observes, “With the precision of a surgical knife, Boyle slowly yet steadily exposes the chilling process by which a well-meaning liberal learns discrimination and hate.” Citing Boyle’s own summation of the book’s intent, she states, “The book stands as a fable, and it tells you that you shouldn’t scapegoat certain groups of people because each person has an individual story and we’re all in this together” (B25). These critics thus underscore Boyle’s twofold mission of reimagining Steinbeck’s protest and showing its relevance to our own times.

Since social-protest novels are subject to wide criticism, both authors accepted the possibility of a negative reception. In a letter of warning to his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, Steinbeck wrote, “This will not be a popular book. And it will be a loss to do anything except to print a small edition and watch and print more if there are more orders” (SLL 161–62). In the same month, he cautioned Covici that “the fascist crowd will try to sabotage this book because it is revolutionary. They will try to give it the communist angle” (SLL 163). Although mistaken in his forecast that his novel might be rejected, Steinbeck did receive numerous negative reviews. Peter Monro Jack only scratches the surface when he forewarns that “Californians are not going to like this angry novel” (2). Jackson J. Benson observes that there was indeed a “good deal of name-calling and much hysterical oratory and rumor-mongering,” particularly by the Associated Farmers (420). Steinbeck comments on the commotion: “The Associated Farmers have begun an hysterical personal attack on me both [End Page 165] in the papers and a whispering campaign. I’m a Jew, I’m a pervert, a drunk, a dope fiend” (qtd. in Benson 419–20). Susan Shillinglaw’s “California Answers The Grapes of Wrath” explores many of these major dissenting voices—all decrying the novel’s vision of collectivism over individualism and self-reliance. Shillinglaw explains that these faultfinders were extremely uncomfortable with the “idealism of Tom Joad” (195).

Like Steinbeck, Boyle also predicted a disgruntled readership after The Tortilla Curtain’s publication: “I’m going to have problems with the conservatives who think I’m too sympathetic to the Mexicans. I’m also going to have problems with people who feel that the novel is unfair to the liberal element. And there will be people who feel that I no longer have the right to talk about the disenfranchised . . . just because I am no longer one of them” (qtd. in Hartigan B25). Boyle addresses these complaints quickly and sardonically: “Tolstoy knew some peasants, but he wasn’t a peasant himself ” (qtd. in Hartigan B25). To those who complain that The Tortilla Curtain is too serious, that it lacks the wit and dark comedy of his earlier novels, Boyle retorts, “Laughing at your own racism is a little more difficult” (qtd. in Lappin 16).

A final attribute of the social-protest novel is its ambiguous, unresolved conclusion. Because there is a distinct lack of resolution, the endings of both The Grapes of Wrath and The Tortilla Curtain have been considered problematic from the onset. Neither Rose of Sharon’s nursing the starving man nor Cándido’s reaching out to save a man from drowning reveals what happens next in any of these characters’ lives.

Anticipating readers’ frustration because of the lack of a resolution, Steinbeck wrote to Covici: “I know that books lead to a strong deep climax. This one doesn’t except by implication and the reader must bring the implication to it. . . . Throughout I’ve tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness” (SLL 167). Boyle charges his readers with a similar responsibility, questioning, “What happens next? Five minutes later? A week later? A sophisticated work leaves it open for the reader, instead of laying it out” (“One Book, One City”).

In mirroring Steinbeck’s ambiguous ending, Boyle cements his own social protest. These endings don’t feel like endings because nothing has changed. In neither text does any additional opportunity result from the redemptive moment. The migrants are still lost; the land is still flooded; there is still no food. The hatred directed toward them is vicious and real. While there is promise of redemption, it is personal, not systemic. There are no easy answers—no tidy conclusions—and the only redemption seems to lie within the human heart. Responsibility for alleviating distress and suffering is left directly in the [End Page 166] hands of readers. Each in his own time, then, Steinbeck and Boyle fulfill the ultimate purpose of the social-protest novel as an appeal for societal change.

Jill Gold Wright

jill gold wright has been a full-time English professor at Mt. San Antonio College for eighteen years. Her book Creating America on Stage: How Jewish Composers and Lyricists Pioneered American Musical Theater was published in 2009.


This article was first presented as a paper at “The Cultural Legacy of The Grapes of Wrath” Conference at California State University, Bakersfield on November 7, 2014. I am especially grateful to Susan Shillinglaw for her generous and invaluable suggestions, both at the conference and on subsequent drafts. I am also indebted to Glenn Simshaw for his insightful assistance with my revisions.

Works Cited

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———. The Tortilla Curtain. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.
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Fadiman, Clifton. “Highway 66: A Tale of Five Cities.” New Yorker. 15 Apr. 1939: 101–3. Print.
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Hartigan, Patti. “A Literary Hooligan Grows Up but T. Coraghessan Boyle Knows His New Novel Will Make More Trouble.” Boston Globe. 24 Sept. 1995: B25+. Print.
Hicks, Heather J. “On Whiteness in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain.” Critique 45.1 (2003): 43–64. Print.
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Knapp, Kathy. “‘Ain’t No Friend of Mine’: Immigration Policy, the Gated Community, and the Problem with the Disposable Worker in T. C. Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain.” Atenea 28.2 (2008): 121–34. Print. [End Page 167]
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