CROSSERS by Philip Caputo

Book Quote:

“Ben is wearing the knife when he rides out of Lochiel, crossing into Mexico as easily as one might cross a street in Tucson or Phoenix. There is no barbed wire to impede him, no signpost except for a tall stone boundary marker to tell him that he is leaving the Arizona Territory. He’s made this trip before but feels a small buzz nonetheless—it’s an adventure for a thirteen-year-old to ride alone into another country on a fine horse like Maggie, small, lithe, and fast, a possession he prizes more than the knife hanging from his belt in a plain leather sheath.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn (OCT 21, 2010)

I dashed out to buy Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Philip Caputo’s, latest novel after reading an enthusiastic review in my local newspaper. I was unfamiliar with this author, but I was intrigued by the promise of a burly border tale. I was not disappointed. This is a generational saga and epic of the southwest, bristling with illegal border crossers and warring drug cartels, studded with outlaws and vaqueros. A dense book, it starts rather slowly, gradually lassoing the reader into a complex, emotional story brittle with sepulchral secrets and spilling with scoured grief.

Gil Castle, a Wall Street broker broken by the death of his wife in the tragic events of 9/11, lives day to day in suicidal agony. At the advice of his grown daughters, he has submitted to therapy. However, the platitudes of “healing” and “closure” bring him even further to the brink of despair. He prefers to read the intellectual, reflective stoics, such as Seneca, or the Greek tragedian, Aeschylus; they speak to him with a deep and thoughtful gravitas. He rebuffs what he considers the psychobabble of grief counseling, of America’s proposition that we weren’t meant to suffer for long periods of time, “as if grief were something like digestion.” As a last grasp for hope, he decides to leave New York and move to a small cabin in Patagonia, a berg in the desert of the Arizona-Mexico border, where his cousin still owns and operates a cattle ranch that has been in the family for a century. His maternal grandfather, Ben Erskine, pioneered this business, the San Ignacio Cattle Company. What Gil and the reader gradually discover is that this sprawling ranch is riddled with “ghosts and bones.”

Two main narrative threads emerge, each with its distinct flavor, tone, and color. The author creates a scintillating outlaw tale of the early twentieth century that is both chilly and taut, ripe and ropy. The actions of Gil’s desperado descendants alternate with the modern-day fable of family and the open graves of grief. The story seamlessly goes back and forth from Gil’s twenty-first century tale to Ben Erskine’s of a hundred years ago. Peppered throughout are letters and interviews with Gil’s relatives from mid-century. Caputo heightens the broad western tale with an astute character study, giving us some salty figures a la Cormac McCarthy meets Larry McMurtry, but branding his own mark and riding in his own saddle.

Crossers keeps its narrative focus, even as the subplots spread and the landscape widens. The vengeance and violence of the drug runners and border crossers keep the pace tight and the action grisly, as well as reticulate the ancestral histories and hatreds between and within families and neighbors. Moreover, the subplots serve as allegory and as metaphor to the wide divides of the human heart, and to the sorrows and histories that threaten to bury us in modern and distant tragedies.

Some of the characters are a little contrived or thin, although there are some, like Ben and Blaine, who are vibrant, blunt, and truculent, knotted like a fist. Gil’s unbridled Midas touch is a bit too convenient at times, but it is a minor affliction. Additionally, the author laid on the idea of evil terrorists a bit thick in the beginning of the novel–but, thankfully, to a larger purpose, which became evident as the story leavened. I am reluctant to discuss my controversial perceptions of 9/11 in any detail, except that I initially considered abandoning the story. Yet my instincts told me to persevere, that this wasn’t a polemical novel. Fortunately, the author’s dynamism eclipsed the indictments and he keenly underscored the dreadful, wretched terrorists that roam our souls–the penetrating terrorists that inhabit the psyche and scream from our hearts–the terrorism of the unconsoled.

I have read complaints (of earlier works) by a few readers that Caputo’s storytelling is too expository and more suited to journalism. Occasionally, Crossers is indulgent and immoderate, and I can see vestiges of the tendency. But he reined himself in and penned a captivating, sweeping story. Even with the minor flaws, this is a powerful, piquant tapestry of a tale.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 17 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage; Reprint edition (October 19, 2010)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Acts of Faith




October 21, 2010 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: US Southwest, Wild West, y Award Winning Author

2 Responses

  1. dougbrun - November 1, 2010

    Betsey ~ I am a Caputo fan and must now add this too to the pile of books to get to. One small point, Patagonia, Arizona, is not a fiction place. Oddly, I just this weekend past had dinner with an old friend with whom I’d lost touch for thirty years, who told me that he escapes the winter of Northern Michigan by going to Patagonia. I told him that I loved Patagonia, that I’d spent a bit of time fishing the Futaleufu. He looked at me curiously and then told me he was talking about Patagonia, AZ. I was talking Chile. His Patagonia had been fictional for me, till that moment. Thanks for the good review!

  2. Judi Clark - November 15, 2010

    I am reading this now… about 3/4s way through and am really enjoying it. I’m glad that you wrote what you did about the beginning of the book and 9/11… if you hadn’t, I might not have persevered and then I would be missing this great Southwest outlaw story. Having recently read SHALAKO by Louis L’Amour, I like the modern twist to this story of ranching on the Sonoran border.

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