My Favorite

Like parents and children, writers aren’t supposed to have favorite works, right? Each piece holds its own special place, the result of a unique hybrid of ideas, experience, workshops, feedback, revisions, more revisions, pitches, and (hopefully) acceptance and publication. Each work is a snapshot of the writer at a particular moment in time, and reflects the writer’s state of mind up to and at that point. Writing is too subjective a process to rank what’s produced. How can one piece stand apart from the rest?

Yet having said that… my short story, Acquaintance, is my all-time favorite piece I’ve written. Originally part of a larger novel, it was able to be coaxed out and morphed into a smaller work. Sometimes you work on something big, only to find that distillation is what’s needed. In that case, while the effort and result may not be matched in volume or size, the alignment between labor and product lies (hopefully) in resonance and meaning.

Thanks, ink&coda journal, for publishing my favorite.

Read the full story here.

Photo courtesy Jonas Boni via Flickr Creative Commons

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Same as it Ever Was: T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain

This photo shows a vista in Topanga Canyon, California

Welcome to Same as it Ever Was, a series in which I’ll review books, movies, and music from the archives that are still timely and relevant, shedding light (for better or worse) on present-day political, cultural, and sociological issues. Let’s kick things off with T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, set in Topanga Canyon/LA County, published in 1995.

Does the following passage sound familiar?

Safety. Self-protection. Prudence. You lock your car, don’t you? Your front door?” A cluck of the tongue, a shift from one hip to the other, blue eyes, solid as stone. “Delaney, believe me, I know how you feel…but this society isn’t what it was–and it won’t be until we get control of the borders.”

The borders. Delaney took an involuntary step backwards, all those dark disordered faces rising up from the streetcorners and freeway on-ramps to mob his brain, all of them crying out their human wants through mouths of rotten teeth. “That’s racist, Jack, and you know it.”

“Not in the least–it’s a question of national sovereignty. Did you know that the U.S. accepted more immigrants last year than all the other countries of the world combined–and that half of them settled in California? And that’s legal immigrants, people with skills, money, education. The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us. They’re peasants, my friend. No education, no resources, no skills–all they’ve got to offer is a strong back, and the irony is we need fewer and fewer strong backs every day because we’ve got robotics and computers and farm machinery that can do the labor of a hundred men at a fraction of the cost.” He dropped his hand in dismissal. “It’s old news.”  …

“Look, Delaney,” Jack went on, cool, reasonable, his voice in full song now, “it’s a simple equation, so much in, so much out. The illegals in San Diego County contributed seventy million in tax revenues and at the same time they used up two hundred and forty million in services–welfare, emergency care, schooling and the like. You want to pay for that? And for the crime that comes with it?”

T.C. Boyle has always been an astute observer of what Vogue called “the need for control, the increasing helplessness of white males.” But with The Tortilla Curtain, he almost takes on the role of soothsayer. Written 21 years ago, this conversation (and other similar points throughout the book) could have informed so many stories that drove the 2016 Presidential election, both overtly and under the surface: the President-elect’s first speech, demonizing Mexican immigrants, as he announced his candidacy. The ongoing marginalization of minorities. The hidden economy that preys on illegal immigrant labor. The disregard for the environment, to our ongoing peril.

When I finished the book, I suspected Boyle had intended to create a modern-day version of Candide, Voltaire’s immortal satire/tragicomedy, in which the hero is subjected to increasingly over-the-top disasters in his recklessly optimistic pursuit of a better life. Indeed, Boyle’s Mexican protagonists, Candido and America, are named so-on-the-nose that the reader has little reason to doubt they’re stand-ins for much larger statements. But, despite Boyle’s possible intent, can The Tortilla Curtain be considered a tragicomedy today, knowing how little progress we have made in more than 20 years? And is it now to be interpreted as an out-and-out tragedy, given the now-legitimate policies of our president-elect? Without giving plot points away, this story starts and ends with violence, one man-made, one natural. Given how little we’ve learned, I’m pessimistic (perhaps like Boyle and Voltaire) that we may still find ourselves on the same trajectory.

I do have a few nitpicky points for this book review: The four main characters in The Tortilla Curtain tend to surreptitiously cross paths frequently, in ways that took me out of the story. (LA is a big place, no? How do these four people always tend to find themselves at the same intersections, grocery stores, etc., always at the same time?) The villain is seemingly without motive and at times cartoony, an evil presence who wreaks havoc with all four protagonists (and also happens to be an illegal immigrant). Instead, I would have loved Boyle to depict a conflicted INS agent as the malevolent presence in this book, a by-the-rules person just doing his/her job, with all the gray area and compromises that requires.

But perhaps that’s for another book–after all, given how little has changed, it seems we’re due for a sequel.

Photo courtesy DrumsKickAss via Flickr Creative Commons

Right Palm

This photo shows the palm of a hand

The itch began on Caroline’s right palm as she changed her bed linens. Stuffing a pillow into its newly laundered case, she felt a tickle swirl around her wrist, then dart up her life line and back. She ran her hand across her jeans, still stiff from the dryer, thinking the taut fabric would take care of the itch, yet it persisted. By mid-morning, it had continued to the point of irritation.

“Isn’t there an old wives’ tale about an itchy palm?” Caroline said to her husband, Joe, the fingernails of her left hand gently raking the flesh of the right. The Sunday paper was just-finished folded, its shuffled-order stack ready for the recycling bin. Joe stood at the sink, still in his rumpled pajamas, and rinsed their coffee mugs. “It’s reminding me of something my mother used to say, but I’m not remembering it correctly. Something about if the left palm itched it meant you were going to come into some money. And if the right palm itched, then …”

“Maybe you’re going to owe someone else money?” Joe shrugged. He shook some kibble into the dog’s food bowl, then filled its companion with fresh water. “That sounds vaguely familiar. Or, you know, it could just mean you have an itchy palm.”

She nudged him aside at the sink and stuck her hand under the cool faucet. Caroline could feel the memory receding even as she tried to recall it, the adage’s details growing fainter as she tried to grip them in her mind’s eye. She dried her hands with a dishtowel. “No matter. Maybe I’ll remember it later.”

She whistled for Tony, then clipped on his leash and headed out toward the park. Outside, on the sunny path, she extended her palm upward to get a closer look. No mosquito bites, no poison ivy, no rash of any kind. She rested the leash’s end in her hand, letting the friction gently tease out whatever was plaguing her, just under the skin’s surface.

While Joe had speculated, the truth was that she did already owe money. And while he knew this in theory, she alone knew the total amount: Three months of student loan bills accumulated in her desk drawer, unopened, unpaid, the fourth anticipated to arrive this week. Three months had been relatively easy to ignore, and easy to justify: no job, no means to pay, she’d pay next month once she had started working. Deferment, though, was no longer an option. Time for a new story, or an actual plan of attack.

Read the full story in the debut issue of Inklette.

Photo courtesy jamelah e. via Flickr Creative Commons