Book Review

Pain along border, across generations

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / December 31, 2009

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Philip Caputo, perhaps best known for his memoir about his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam (“A Rumor of War’’), has crafted a memorable, ambitious novel about a man haunted by his past and seeking escape along the Arizona-Mexico border. Of course, there’s no escape for Caputo’s protagonist Gil Castle, who finds himself absorbed in a desert landscape that combines intense beauty with brutal violence.

Gil Castle leaves his career as a Wall Street banker after his wife is killed on Sept. 11, 2001. The narrative opens with Gil thinking about suicide. Instead, he decides to get as far from civilization as possible and moves into a small house on the Arizona ranch of his cousin Blaine. Caputo’s gripping tale interweaves two narrative threads: We see Gil trying to recover from the loss of his wife, while we also move back in time to follow the violent life of Gil’s ancestor Ben Erskine (his cousin’s grandfather).

Caputo unspools these two narrative threads patiently, hinting at the interconnections that will come to a satisfying climax at novel’s end. Caputo makes it clear that border violence has always been a part of life near the line, from Ben Erskine’s time (the early 20th century) to the present. Caputo describes Ben’s cowboy code of honor, his refusal to take an insult without retaliation. Ben ends up killing several men on both sides of the border, and this legacy of violence lives on, haunting his family.

Meanwhile, Caputo shows us that what moves illegally across the border is people (Mexicans seeking economic opportunity in the United States) and drugs of all kinds. Caught in the middle is Blaine Erskine’s Arizona ranch, where Gil sits reading quietly at night trying to forget his dead wife. Caputo colorfully depicts the rival Mexican drug lords who thrive on the border and the rampant corruption their drug riches create. As Caputo makes clear, you can’t see much difference between the criminals and the police along the border.

Caputo has created wonderful characters, including one called The Professor, a murky genius who works every angle. The Professor works for one Mexican drug lord and seeks to infiltrate the organization of a rival female drug lord in order to destroy her organization, all the while sharing information with both the Mexican and American police authorities. As Caputo notes, The Professor “suffered little mental distress playing outlaw and lawman at the same time, gliding between two different worlds with ease because he’d lived in two different worlds all his life.’’

The barely submerged violence along the border explodes just as Gil begins to feel hope again, just as he’s falling in love with Tessa, a neighboring rancher. Caputo shows us how the past and the present converge in an unending cycle of tit-for-tat violence. Caputo’s memorably vicious female drug lord, Yvonne Menéndez, is mysteriously connected to Ben Erskine and hence his grandson Blaine. Caputo makes these murky connections clearer over time, as the drama builds toward a conclusion that will change everyone.

Gil’s attempted escape to Arizona doesn’t quite work out, as Caputo sends these vivid characters crashing toward their fateful, inevitable conflict. What Gil learns on the border is that “life on the line was precarious. Anything at any moment, all things were possible.’’ It’s clear in the end that violence begets more violence, as lawlessness echoes down through decades and generations. Caputo has given his readers a satisfying story, with memorable characters moving against a backdrop of beauty and brutality.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

CROSSERS: A Novel By Philip Caputo, Knopf, 450 pp., $26.95

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