L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
Set in Topanga Canyon not too long after the L.A. riots, T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain is a novel about immigration. There are immigrants in the story, notably the Mexican couple Cándido and América Rincón, who camp by a creek below Spanish Mission style homes while looking for work, but you'll find recent arrivals in almost any contemporary Los Angeles novel. To say we live in a city of immigrants is to state the obvious. The Tortilla Curtain isn't just populated with people from elsewhere; you might say its main character is the actual social issue itself.
Delany and Kyra Mossbacher live in Arroyo Blanco Estates, a community of annoying richies who, when they're not recycling Diet Coke cans, shopping for high-fiber bars or driving down the canyon road in Mercedes, are debating whether to build a big gate in front of their neighborhood. It's just one of many walls discussed in the novel, all of which would be constructed by Mexicans, because that's the American way, güey. These walls come to symbolize the whole of the immigration debate, and the many struggles of the Rincón family after Delany hits Cándido with his car become swallowed up in the muddled, muddy torrent of that larger debate.
After a fire destroys a property Kyra is trying to sell, her inner thoughts become all the more real for being so cliché:
It was the Mexicans who'd done this. Illegals. Goons with their hats turned backwards on their heads. Sneaking across the border, ruining the schools, gutting property values and freeloading on welfare, and as if that weren't enough, now they were burning everybody else out too. They were like the barbarians outside the gates of Rome, only they were already inside, polluting the creek and crapping in the woods, threatening people and spraying graffiti all over everything, and where was it going to end?
Hector Tobar's The Tattooed Soldier, by contrast, is a novel about immigrants. The book opens with Guatemalan intellectual Antonio Bernal and his Korean landlord struggling to understand each other's second-language English after the rent is long overdue, and it quickly propels itself into a tale of revenge for wrongs committed over 2,000 miles south of the border.
After several nights sleeping in a lean-to on the palimpsest of Crown Hill, Bernal walks to MacArthur Park and discovers the Fort Bragg-trained Guatemalan solider who slew his wife and son years earlier in San Cristóbal. The son of a bitch is in Los Angeles. Guillermo Longoria, the titular solider, has lots of blood on his boots, so he doesn't recognize his compatriot and returns to his chess game, unaware a collision course has been plotted that will lead straight to the middle of the L.A. riots. Longoria is clearly the baddie in this scenario, but Tobar still instills a humanity in this former farm boy who was unwillingly conscripted and made into a man of slaughter.
Both The Tortilla Curtain and The Tattooed Soldier are set around the time of the L.A. riots. They both stare straight into the eyes of immigrants. They both describe the people and the terrain of particular parts of the city. So which is the better L.A. novel?
The Tattooed Soldier, by a mudslide. Tobar's novel is heavy, but not heavy-handed. The immigrants of his Los Angeles bring their pasts with them, and those histories play out among the riots and the gangbangers of the 1990s. History creates the present, but the present looks a lot different from the past. There's plenty of social commentary in The Tattooed Soldier, but it's hidden beneath the lives of its antagonists, who came here and discovered a city not quite what they'd imagined:
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Years ago, when Antonio lived in Guatemala, he had an electric idea of Los Angeles. It was a place of vibrant promises, with suntanned women in bikinis and men carrying ice chests brimming with beer. It was a city of handsome, fit young people, all with bounce in their step. Long before he set foot in this country, Antonio felt that he knew California because he'd seen it come to life over and over again on his television set. In Antonio's homeland, the words "Los Angeles" sparkled, like sunlight glimmering off a mountain lake.
What he finds isn't quite that. What he finds is Los Angeles.
The winner: The Tattooed Soldier