Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Pity the poor immigrant?: a difficult case in a T C Boyle short story
Slackers, loners, outsiders, and hard-luck drinkers - these are the people we encounter in T. Coraghessan Boyle's short fiction (in his many novels, he takes on a broader variety of characters and conditions), and the greatness of his short fiction is that he writes with sympathy and understanding about these unfortunates - never condescending, satirical, or ironic. His story in the current New Yorker, The Fugitive, is a great example, a story of a Mexican-immigrant day laborer (garden worker) most likely in Southern Cal (TCB's domain) who's suffering from a highly contagious strain of TB and disdains following the orders from the staff at the clinic that he must wear a mask at all times to protect the health of others. Boyle keeps us off balance - at times we feel deeply sorry for this poor guy and his difficult life and his desire just to be like others and not wear a mask that marks him out immediately, like a target on his face as he says to himself; at other times we realize how selfish and dangerous he is, especially when he strikes out at his medical workers toward the end of the story. A piece like this could infuse the anti-immigrant sentiment so prevalent today and already being stoked by megalomaniacs and bigots: Why is this guy allowed in the U.S., and receiving the benefits of free medical care, which he disdains? But the story also makes the immigrant not faceless (literally) but human - a suffering man, trying to survive, doing the work that others won't do, with hardly a chance to get ahead. He's not necessarily representative of all immigrant laborers of course, and TCB may draw some criticism for portraying an immigrant with such a flawed personality - but like all good fiction it ends not with a closing but an opening: what will happen to the man, and to us?