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BOOK REVIEW

'Crossers' by Philip Caputo

A widower seeks refuge on his family's Arizona ranch but finds smugglers, guns and long-held vendettas instead.

October 18, 2009|Art Winslow

Rather than a Milagro Beanfield-style war over water rights, in Philip Caputo's "Crossers" we have a veritable hot zone, with faceoffs between drug runners packing automatic pistols, illegal immigrants led (or abandoned) by their coyote guides, Mexican federal police, the U.S. Border Patrol and ranchers whose private property is, by default, a no-man's land, skeined with paths not made by their cattle.

"This is the border. There's a lot of dead people around here ain't in cemeteries," is how Sally, matriarch of one of the large ranches, puts it. Caputo uses this torn-from-the-headlines setting -- where Arizona abuts Mexico, in the San Rafael Valley -- to play New West and Old West stereotypes against each other. In the high-tech watch posts guarding entry to the U.S., we have " 'Star Wars' joining hands with the Old West, two myths linked by the gringo faith in technology to overcome, the Winchester repeating rifle that cleared the plains of buffalo and Indians, ancestor to the electronic sensors and infrared cameras that kept the Mexicans out."

And yet the "reconquistadores" are "slowly taking back with demographics what was stolen from us with the gun a century and a half ago," asserts a character known as the Professor. He has aliases on both sides of the border and is a captain in the Mexican Federal Judicial Police but also a naturalized U.S. citizen, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operative and someone who draws a paycheck from Joaquin Carrasco, one of the novel's Mexican drug kingpins. Asked if he is a double or triple agent, he replies, "I'm an agent of history." (There's crossing for you.)

There are other types of borders to be negotiated in life, of course, and one of these must be crossed by Gil Castle, a textbook East Coast Brahmin who moved west seeking respite from grief after his second wife (his first had left him for a woman) was killed at ground zero on Sept. 11. A graduate of Hotchkiss, Princeton and the Wharton School, Gil had a stellar career in the fourth-largest investment firm on the planet and had become a multimillionaire, star of its retail division and an executive. His one mistake, he believed, "had been to believe that his luck would last."

After spending more than a year despondent among his dead wife's belongings at their Connecticut house, and after renouncing suicide only at the last moment -- with the shotgun in his mouth, he looks "a bit like a Turk smoking a hookah" -- Gil decided to cut his Eastern ties. He gave away three-fourths of his fortune, piled his dog and few belongings into his Suburban and drove to the Arizona ranch owned by his cousin Blaine, Blaine's wife, Monica, and his Aunt Sally. Castle considered himself "a refugee of the strange new war."

Yet the type of war that Gil encounters in the West -- thematic links of terror are drawn in parallel with Gil's family links -- is new only to him. As a Navajo tracker for the Border Patrol informs him, "this valley has been a drug corridor for twenty years." Despite some of Caputo's excellent observational riffs and moments of high irony, it should be noted that back stories as overcooked as the ones affixed to the Professor and Gil Castle accompany yet other characters in "Crossers" to the novel's detriment. It's as if Caputo had mounted them atop an emotional or situational cliche and slapped its haunches to see how far they could ride before being thrown.

Fortunately, the practice of substituting shorthand social descriptors for illumination from a character's interior is not universal in "Crossers." It is most noticeable in the modern-day characters who, after all, exist in a narco-terror thriller, albeit one with higher-level aspirations of evoking truths about bloodshed, grief and vengeance.

Present and past

Their lives play out alongside a historical story line involving the grandfather of Gil and Blaine, a legendary Old West lawman and killer named Ben Erskine. That story, and the writing that delivers it, are sensationally better than other parts of the novel, and one speaker within it narrates sections so strong that it could be Mark Twain, with his wings only slightly clipped.

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