Every character in Philip Caputo's new novel, Crossers, is a crosser in one way or another. • Some cross, legally or not, the stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border that slices through the beautiful San Rafael Valley as it rolls down through southern Arizona into Sonora. Others cross from grief to love, from resentment to rage, from life to death. Some even cross that last border the other way, as ghosts or memories or voices caught in dusty documents. • Caputo, who will be a featured author at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24, won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1972 and is best known for his memoir A Rumor of War, about his service as a Marine in Vietnam. • He is also an accomplished novelist, and Crossers is the latest demonstration of his skill, a gripping story of the collisions between the old and new West.
Its central character is an outsider there. Gil Castle is a wealthy and privileged man; raised in Connecticut, he became a millionaire stockbroker in New York City. He lives happily there with his wife, Amanda — until the day she gets on a flight in Boston, and Mohamed Atta pilots the plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Castle is still reeling more than a year after 9/11, emotionally paralyzed and so deeply depressed he comes to the brink — an "attempted attempt" — of suicide. Snapped out of it by the thought of how his grown daughters would react, he sells his house, gives much of his money away, puts his hunting dog in the car and heads for the San Ignacio Cattle Company.
The ranch is owned by his aunt, Sally Erskine, her son, Blaine, and his wife, Monica. Originally, it belonged to Castle's maternal grandfather, Ben Erskine, a legendary rancher and lawman.
Blaine, Monica and Sally offer him the use of a casita on the sprawling ranch, which lies in the San Rafael Valley along the southeastern Arizona border. It's a spectacularly gorgeous and barely populated place, miles of lush, oak-studded grassland broken only by a few ranch headquarters and roads, flanked by the Patagonia and Huachuca mountain ranges and looking like some dream Western movie set.
Castle reads Seneca at night, ranges the hills with his English setter in the daytime and begins to find some solace. As they're hunting quail one day, the dog points to something much larger: a terrified, half-dead young Mexican man named Miguel.
Castle helps him without hesitation — a selfless act that will have unforeseeable reverberations. Miguel has crossed the border illegally, but that's only the beginning, he tells Castle and the Erskines. He and two friends paid a coyote, a smuggler of humans, to get them across, but they were coerced into muling bales of marijuana as well — then ambushed on the U.S. side by a man who killed Miguel's friends. He's alive only because he hid. Although he's as frightened of La Migra — the Border Patrol — as he is of the drug lords who may be after him, Miguel agrees to take deputies to the bodies.
Castle has unwittingly stepped into the passionate politics of illegal border crossing in a place where it's a daily dilemma. What had always been a trickle of crossers passing through the San Rafael has, because of economic pressures and tightened security elsewhere on the border, become a torrent. As Monica says, "These people can drive you nuts. . . . They break down your fences and break your heart, and you don't know what the hell to do about them."
Castle is soon spending more time thinking about Tessa, another local rancher with whom he strikes up a tentative relationship, than about Miguel. But Miguel's plight makes them all persons of interest to a new drug cartel gaining power just across the border, run by a ruthless woman named Yvonne Menendez.
She's known as La Roja, for her red hair and perhaps for her violent methods as well: Torture, mutilation and murder are among her top personnel management strategies. Yvonne has an interest in the Erskines' ranch that goes far beyond shutting up Miguel.
Also weaving back and forth across the border, into and out of Yvonne's orbit, is a fascinating character called the Professor. A former DEA agent, an associate of the Mexican federales, a consultant to drug cartels, he might be a double agent, a triple agent or only ever his own agent. Brilliant and fearless, he's is also a synesthete — he smells colors, hears shapes — and, because he looks like his British father and was raised by his Mexican mother, he can pass unquestioned as either Anglo or Mexican.
The Professor sees the flow of border crossers as a slow-motion form of la reconquista — the reclaiming of the vast lands Mexico ceded to the United States little more than a century ago. It's a change he approves of, although his loyalties are complex.
Caputo skillfully moves the reader among the contemporary points of view of Castle, Yvonne and the Professor as well as revealing Ben Erskine's story through oral histories collected from the lawman's friends. It's a surprising story that echoes into the present, a hard look at the reality behind legendary Western heroes, and an illustration of what folly it is to think any wall is tall enough to sever the long, intimate, inextricable relationship between the United States and Mexico.
I lived for a decade in southern Arizona and know the territory Caputo covers in this book, and he nails both the country and the culture. Crossers is a novel of grief and recovery, a love story, a thriller, but it is most of all a novel about a place, one that can break your heart and make it soar.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.