By Philip Caputo
Knopf, 480 pp., $27.95
The enormous malevolence of Sept. 11, 2001, still squats upon the imagination, resisting our efforts to comprehend it. Writers as various as Jay McInerney (“The Good Life”), Jonathan Safran Foer (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”), John Updike (“Terrorist”) and Andre Dubus III (“The Garden of Last Days”) have tried working the events of 9/11 into their novels, but most of these ambitious books were doomed to at least partial failure because our memories of the actual events retain an emotional immediacy that even the most skillfully crafted fiction can't approximate.
But Philip Caputo's “Crossers” succeeds, in part because it's about a man who recognizes that the imagination is inadequate to comprehend evil. For Gil Castle, Caputo's protagonist, the enormity of 9/11 is “beyond grasp – an insane act perpetrated by sane minds.” Castle's wife was aboard the first plane that flew into the World Trade Center towers, and the senselessness of her loss has left him emotionally crippled. After pulling back from the brink of suicide, he decides to withdraw from the sources that feed his memories and his grief – the home where he and his wife lived and the city where he worked and she died. Castle, who has made a fortune on Wall Street, liquidates his holdings, sells his house, and moves to his cousin Blaine Erskine's ranch on the Arizona-Sonora border.
Castle takes this course not out of any mythic urge to move West – in fact, he explicitly rejects it: “It was important in America to move on, to avoid living in the past. That, Castle supposed, made him somewhat un-American. He could not help but live in the past; it clung to him like a second skin.” And so he holes up in an outbuilding on Blaine's ranch, nursing his grief and reading the Roman Stoic Seneca, though he finds Seneca's counsel -- “there is such a thing as moderation in grieving” -- inadequate.
Castle's grief will moderate, though not without the hard wrenching away that produces guilt and pain, because he is right about the inability to avoid living in the past. The irony here is that the past that will intrude upon him is not his own but that of his family. The novel begins with a story from the boyhood of Castle's maternal grandfather, Ben Erskine, who was once described as “the last ember of the true Old West,” and as “an adventurer, a soldier of fortune, and a lawman, [who] put about twelve men in the ground – the ones he didn't put in jail.”
As “Crossers” intermingles the stories of Ben Erskine and Gil Castle, it becomes a novel about the intersection of history and the present, set in a place where, as Blaine's wife observes, things are “like the days of Pancho Villa, except now the bad guys ride Dodge Rams instead of on horses and bang away with AK-47s instead of Winchesters. ... Cell phone on one hip, pistol on the other. The Wild West meets the twenty-first century.” The Erskine family's ranch edges up to the U.S.-Mexican border, a barrier ineffective in stemming the traffic in narcotics and undocumented immigrants. Castle is caught in the crossfire – sometimes literally – between people who run drugs and people who run people, between law enforcement and lawbreakers, and between cultures separated only by a boundary made visible by the barbed-wire fences that deter cattle from crossing, but not human beings.
Caputo gives us characters with credibility and individuality, even though we can see the Western-fiction stereotypes underlying them: the Tenderfoot Easterner, the Rugged Individualist Rancher, the Woman Who's As Tough As Any Man, and so on. There's even a Man With a Mysterious Past known as “The Professor,” who travels between the two countries gathering information. “I can't figure out if you're in this for yourself, if you're a double agent, a triple agent, a quadruple agent, or what,” says one baffled lawman. “I'm an agent of history,” replies The Professor. It takes a skillful writer to avoid falling into hokum with a character like that, but Caputo avoids it -- narrowly. He is a little less successful with his novel's villain, the rapacious drug queen Yvonne Menéndez, whose son reflects, “The only thing he would not put past his mother was cannibalism.” Caputo takes the character so far over the top that the reader probably won't put even that past her.
Similarly, Caputo's plotting has elements of conventional fiction: Castle's healing process is accelerated when he falls in love again, and the novel climaxes in a rush of thriller-type action. But the book manages to rise above its generic elements. Without any ripped-from-the-headlines artifice, “Crossers” gives us an intense, clear-sighted account of the times in which we live, of 9/11, the Iraq war, the “war on drugs” and the conflict over illegal immigration. Caputo succeeds in showing how our contemporary paranoia and homeland insecurity are rooted in the inescapable past.