HAD Frank Zappa gone to a fancy- dress party as General Custer, the result might have looked something like Thomas Coraghessan Boyle. Sartorially, Boyle just doesn't cut it as one of America's foremost literary figures. He's checked the gravitas, the professorial spectacles, the tweed jacket, at the door, preferring an off-kilter earring, a frankly bohemian hairstyle, a beard he might have picked up at a grunge convention and a waistcoat probably left to him in Jerry Garcia's will. The eyes look spaced-out, although it's due to jet lag rather than anything more outre: "I took this amazing new drug which is an extract from a pineal gland and is supposed to reset your biological clock," he explains.
"I'm beginning to wonder whose pineal gland it was."
Appearances wouldn't matter so much if this was still the T Coraghessan Boyle critics have been happy to pigeonhole as an offbeat (the dread word "zany" has been employed) chronicler of the extremes of Americana.
The bookish, hippie persona (he's one of the few authors the American public recognises on the street) ties in with the writer who gave us such freewheeling satires as East Is East with its withering depiction of a writers' community, Road To Wellville, a sardonic glimpse of valetudinarian obsessives, or Budding Prospects, a tragi-comic saga of alternative entrepreneurs and their attempts to grow a mighty cannabis crop within spliffing distance of the Bay Bridge. Such a writer has to be a little funky.
Without falling into the trap of dismissing such works as frivolous, Tom Boyle, 1995 version, is a somewhat more heavyweight consideration.
His latest novel, The Tortilla Curtain, is a marked change of gear, an attempt to engage with one of the more pressing issues in modern American society, the massed illegal immigration of Mexicans into southern California and the attendant racial and economic upheaval.
Boyle tells his story from two opposing angles. Delaney Mossbacher is a liberal natural history writer married to ambitious estate agent Kyra. They live in the exclusive Arroyo Blanco Estates overlooking the canyon where illegals Candido Rincon and his 17-year-old pregnant wife, America, are camped out, desperate for work, food and shelter.
"When Delaney's car hits and injures Candido on the highway he pays off the Mexican with $ 20, but their lives become inevitably entwined as 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.
He's blunted the sophistication of his humour, made the writing starker, more direct. Every character has a broader relevance, the Job-like figure of Candido, his wife named after the country that is failing her, the contradictions in Delaney, a man who believes in wide open spaces but is physically revolted by the sight of Mexicans camping in them, and Kyra, the cold face of economic reality for whom Latinos are merely an equity-damaging eyesore.
"I see it as a morality play or a fable and so I've picked extremes," says Boyle. "Obviously not everyone is as wealthy as Delaney nor are the illegal immigrants all as desperate as Candido. I wanted to create four strong characters and give them each their time on stage. I wanted to tone down my humour and see how that would play. It is difficult to do because in a way I'm playing against my strengths here, just to see if I could do it. My first instinct would be to write a satire like Tom Wolfe or Evelyn Waugh, who is one of my heroes, to pull all the stops out and make fun of everything across the board."
The road accident scene and the liberal guilt theme have sparked comparisons with Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, but Boyle's is a less flashy work, a very controlled depiction of a single flashpoint issue. "I read Bonfire of the Vanities back in '87 and very much liked it and I often do that kind of satire but in this book I wanted to do something very different, a satire where you begin to laugh at Delaney's foibles, chuckle or shake your head, but finally that laugh is meant to stick in your throat.
Rather than something like Road To Wellville which deals with some of our foibles in terms of diet and so on, stuff which is easy for people to laugh at aloud. Laughing at your own racism is a little more difficult."
Left-thinking New York critics certainly haven't been cracking too many grins. Many were dismayed by Boyle's unforgiving depiction of the hypocrisy of liberals on the run, believing he was being too hard on them. Other ideologically correct types took him to task for thinking himself into the position of a Mexican.
"I reject that outright as the most stupid, authoritarian kind of nonsense I've ever heard in my life," he says. "If you take it to its logical extremes I couldn't write about a woman because I'm not a woman, I couldn't write about a dog because I'm not a dog and it just infuriates me. With this book I have invented the characters. That's what a novelist is supposed to do. I'm supposed to make it credible. I'm supposed to make you believe that this is true.
That doesn't mean that I have to have lived in a labour camp for 30 years or have to be Mexican. I believe any imaginative writer should be able to inhabit any body."
What has proved contentious, of course, is that Boyle isn't writing about the historical figures of World's End or Road To Wellville any longer, but about one of the most controversial issues on the US political agenda . According to the LA Times, Los Angeles is practically bankrupt because one in five of the population is contributing taxes and four out of five are on some form of public assistance. Some 275,000 immigrants in LA (mostly Hispanic) are on welfare, which causes anger among that sector of the population paying tax.
Boyle's book was bound to raise hackles, which is partly why he wrote it. "This is overtly more political than my previous work," he says. "This book obviously takes off from The Grapes Of Wrath. 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. There was no sense then of lack of resources, of finite minerals or huge swelling populations. The population is expected to double in 40 years. Can you imagine anything getting better under those conditions? So the idea behind The Tortilla Curtain evolved because I was upset about the way tensions were building in Los Angeles on a biological level. Delaney is a naturalist so I could talk about biology and look at it in a Darwinian way.
"There are five and a half billion of us on the planet. Obviously, as a species, we move like any other animal from one area to another regardless of borders or fences or whatever, to seek resources. We all have an equal right to do that
"I think what's happening is that this population crush is exacerbating the normal racial tensions, because this is purely a fight for territory and resources - even though people will not admit it. What really upsets me is that this results in a kind of demonising of a whole class or race of people. At least Delaney as an outsider has some sense initially that this is not right."
Over the course of the novel, Delaney's liberal humanism becomes overturned to the extent that he ends up more racist than his protectionist Californian neighbours. It is part of Boyle's intent to show how well- meaning principles are sacrificed to self-interest.
What is ironic is that it is Boyle, a writer who defies being regarded as a left-wing spokesman, a social critic or the standard-bearer for any literary refuseniks, who has written the first serious attempt to address the problem. He recognises the potential influence of the book, while remaining unwilling to commit himself as an ideological commentator.
"Every novelist is responsible to himself only and can write anything he wants to. If it were my intention to use all my powers and gifts to write beautiful poetic novels in praise of Adolf Hitler that's my prerogative. So I really feel no obligation to do anything.
I just follow my own self. With the short stories in particular I often write them to keep myself in check, to correct my own behaviour. When I begin to look at a Mexican and ask myself: "Who is this guy, what's he doing on my street corner?" I write a novel that asks the same questions."
Boyle admits writing is a form of psychoanalysis, a way of exorcising his own obsessions. "During the hippie era one guy kept saying to me "Jesus, man, you ought to meditate" and I pointed out to him that essentially I do meditate, for four hours a day. I just do it on a keyboard."
With The Tortilla Curtain Boyle seems to have taken on the job of exorcising a nation's obsession rather than just his own. This from a writer who insists: "I don't want to be part of anything, I don't want to write polemics or essays, I don't want to be on anybody's team. I just want to do exactly what I please."
Directly after writing The Tortilla Curtain Boyle went away and wrote seven angry short stories addressing particular social or political issues, but having got that out of his system he's now working on another historical novel, a tale of love and psychiatry set in Santa Barbara at the beginning of the century. It will be funny but that doesn't mean it won't be serious.
Part of the problem with US critics, he suggests, is that they see a writer who is unafraid of making jokes and assume he is a writer who is afraid of being serious. "I feel that humour is deadly serious. What I learned from Flannery O'Connor is that if you create a comic universe and turn the tables it can be much more devastating than if you put us into a naturalistic or tragic universe and keep it on a keel."
In the meantime, he laughs away weekly offers from Hollywood and devotes himself to convincing the US public that literary fiction has a worth and a power.
"I am an egomaniac. I want my voice to be heard. Out on the road I am the messiah of literature and I have many enemies because I say that. Part of my job as a writer is to try to recapture some of the audience, to remind them that literature is better than genre writing, better than TV. I am toying with the idea of seizing power in the US so I could get my books across the way the greatest marketing genius in the world, Mao Zedong, did. If you don't own a copy of the Little Red Book you're dead, heh, heh, heh." The beard plays along, quivering in mad genius mode.
November 10, 1995