Book World: Review of 'Crossers' by Philip Caputo

  Enlarge Photo    
By Jim Lynch
Tuesday, December 1, 2009


By Philip Caputo

Knopf. 448 pp. $26.95

Movies and novels rarely deepen our understanding of our southern border, settling instead for drug-running thrillers or thin, slice-of-life sagas. It's understandable. The closer you look, the more complex the border gets: too many cultural nuances to capture, too many contradictions and stereotypes to examine, too many themes and subplots to shoehorn into one compelling drama.

Yet Philip Caputo strives to do all that with his new novel, "Crossers," a remarkably ambitious book that packs a meaty, multi-generational story with enough scope, insight and realism to illuminate the modern U.S.-Mexican border and offer glimpses of what it once was.

The book opens in 1903 with a rough adolescent named Ben Erskine galloping into Mexico to buy a bottle of tequila for his uncle. His ride back toward Arizona turns bloody, and Erskine's subsequent career as a controversial Old West lawman is thrown into motion.

Next up, almost a full century later, is Erskine's grandson, Gil Castle, a wealthy Wall Street tycoon grieving over his wife, who died on 9/11. "Go to sleep in mourning and wake up in dread of each new day, like a man with terminal cancer," Caputo writes. "The hell of this cancer was that it wasn't terminal." Castle abandons Manhattan and the haunts of his married life to visit relatives he barely knows on an Arizona cattle ranch abutting the Mexican line, "a pretty place where some ugly things happen."

He is soon distracted from his grieving when he rescues a dehydrated smuggler near his cabin. With this scene and others, Caputo illustrates how much more complicated border issues are in person, when a generic "illegal," "wetback" or "smuggler" becomes an anguished "Miguel." Miguel's account of the double murder of his smuggling colleagues inadvertently links the Erskine family ranch to a dark web of criminals and corrupt officials on both sides of the border. The story builds as Castle regains his footing in life and a decades-old vendetta involving his grandfather gradually unfolds.

Throughout the novel, the narrative cleverly flashes back to Ben Erskine's exploits in the early 20th century with colorful transcripts from a mock oral history. The recollections focus on Erskine's legendary run as a roguish deputy sheriff. As his brother states in his 1966 testimonial: "My brother was loved and admired by a lot of folks on both sides of the border, for good reason. He was also feared and hated, likewise for good reason."

Just as Erskine's past looms over the present, Caputo's New West evokes the Old West. As one of Castle's Arizona relatives explains: "Now the bad guys ride in Dodge Rams instead of on horses and bang away with AK-47s instead of Winchesters. . . . Cell phone on one hip, pistol on the other. The Wild West meets the twenty-first century. And now we've got vigilantes coming in, the Minutemen. All we need is for the Apaches to get riled up, and we'll be right back where we started."

At times, Caputo crosses into Cormac McCarthy's fictional borderlands, with brave young cowboys and modern drug thugs, but the prose is more northern and the tone more overtly political. Caputo spikes his story with provocative asides about the northern push of Mexicans -- "a bloodless invasion" -- and the dubious benefits of boundaries, singling out graffiti on a fence dividing Nogales, Sonora, from Nogales, Ariz., that says, "Borders are scars on the face of the earth."

Along the way, "Crossers" gets inside the minds of ranchers and drug lords and a bevy of other bilingual, mixed-race and mixed-heritage characters while courting such themes as the haunting influence of the past, the thin line between bravery and brutality, and the prevalence of grief. "If you could broadcast the groans and shrieks and howls of a single day," Caputo writes, "the sound would deafen the world."

For the most part, Caputo pulls it all off. It's a bit like watching someone juggle three tennis balls, two torches and a chainsaw. If something hits the ground, it doesn't ruin the performance. His historical imaginings are so rich and convincing that readers will follow them wherever they go. The present, where most of the book unfolds, is more uneven. The middle-age romance is refreshing, though occasionally schmaltzy. The criminal underworld provides pace and menace, but threatens at times to overwhelm or cheapen the story. And the slowly unveiled reason behind the cross-border vendetta at the novel's core is perhaps too small of a hinge for such a heavy story to swing on.

In lesser hands, "Crossers" might have been a mess, but Caputo is such a careful researcher and nimble writer, so unafraid of cultural and narrative complexities, that he manages to deliver an enthralling and thoughtful novel about our southern border.

Lynch's most recent novel is "Border Songs."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company