by Robert WeibezahlOctober 2009
A powerful look at life on the border
Eight years on, it would be impossible to calculate the number of writers who have explored the tragedy of 9/11 in their fiction and nonfiction. In his latest novel, Crossers, Philip Caputo joins their ranks; but his multilayered narrative quickly moves beyond the horrible events of that darkest of days to probe the heart of a more perennial American tragedy: our complicated history with our Mexican neighbors.
Gil Castle, a 57-year-old investment banker, lost his wife that September day (she was a passenger on the plane that slammed into the North Tower), and a year later, he cannot begin to shed the deep sense of loss that has enveloped his being. Unable to bear it any longer, he takes early retirement, sells his house, gives away most of his belongings and moves to the Arizona desert, where an aunt and cousin he barely knows own a cattle ranch. Ensconced in a rustic cabin in an isolated corner of the San Ignacio Ranch, Castle passes his sterile days reading Seneca, hiking and hunting. Largely cut off from the world, he soon realizes he has not escaped his despair, but he nonetheless prefers this imperfect solitude to what he has left behind in Connecticut.
Castle’s retreat from the world takes an unexpected turn when he finds an exhausted young Mexican man hiding in the brush not far from his cabin. Because the ranch shares its southern boundary with the border, illegal immigrants often make their way north across its land. This terrified refugee, Miguel, has lived through a horrid ordeal as he has tried to pass into the United States. Since the money he was going to pay the “coyote” has been stolen from him, he has been forced to smuggle parcels of marijuana across the border, narrowly escaping the fate of his two gunned-down traveling companions. Castle and his relatives feed the migrant and let him rest before turning him over to the authorities, who put Miguel—a valuable witness to murder—in a Homeland Security detention center rather than deporting him.
The other unanticipated event in Castle’s life is the advent of love. Tessa McBride, the owner of the neighboring ranch, proves a congenial companion, and the attraction these two wounded souls feel is stronger than their individual needs for keeping the world at bay. Tessa’s only daughter joined the military a few months before 9/11, and now, with the drums of war beating in Washington and Baghdad, it seems inevitable that the girl will soon see battle. Despite his own emotional desolation, Castle provides Tessa some reciprocal solace in anxious times.
The story of Gil Castle’s reluctant ascent from grief is just a fragment of the story that Caputo sets out to tell in Crossers. There are forces at work well beyond Castle’s upper-middle-class ken, as a dangerous war is being waged in a desert much closer than the one circumscribed by the Tigris and Euphrates. Rival Mexican drug lords fight for supremacy in the arid territory surrounding the ranch on both sides of the border, using poor, disposable countrymen such as Miguel as cannon fodder. That war has arrived at Castle’s doorstep.
The deadly power struggle between Mexican and gringo landowners offers striking echoes of an earlier story that makes up the third piece of Caputo’s narrative. Castle’s grandfather, Ben Erskine, who killed his first man at 13, played a formidable, though not always lawful, role in shaping this godforsaken territory in the years before Arizona statehood. Crossing into Mexico freely, but most notably as a soldier of fortune during the Revolution, Ben’s legacy is shadowy at best. The truth, as complicated and uncompromising as the landscape itself, will return to haunt his descendents as they face off against their violent adversaries.
Philip Caputo, who won a Pulitzer Prize for reportage, and wrote the seminal Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War, has long focused his fiction on the moral ambiguities that have accompanied violent conflicts around the world—Vietnam, the Sudan, Iraq. With Crossers, he brings the war home, powerfully evoking an America marked by complexities, contradictions and an uncomfortable relationship with its own past.