Philip Caputo, Vintage ($33)
Crossers is, initially, about a man, Gil Castle, who loses everything he loves in the wake of a terrorist plot so picturesque it will forever be the topic of and inspiration behind novels for the rest of time. In the emptiness and desperation that follows, what is actually a very interesting part of the book, modern, relevant and full of genuine feeling, Castle decides to pack up show and head to the boarder where the real story begins, or promises to.
And this is where Caputo lost me, he lost me for weeks at a time as my tortured copy of Crossers sat looking upwards with its tattered grey scale cover that whispered sweet nothings of ghosts and Mesquite, muddled intentions and dark animosity. But every time I thought ‘Yes, okay you, impress me’ I would be faced with this reality: Caputo is an airport novelist, forever disappointing when you’re not actually on a plane.
Not that there is anything wrong with airport fiction but I feel his works gets misrepresented by publishers brandishing his Pulitzer Award on the cover of all his fiction when in fact he won the award for his journalism- two distinctly different disciplines. To be award winning in one does not necessarily compute to being even fairly good at the other. An unfair expectation is set up for those not in the know (me) and I found myself giving him the benefit of the doubt for far longer than I’d give anyone else, thinking as I did around every corner: surely this will form into something solid, something you can poke a stick at? But alas, it remains a tale of superficial bravado, thin caricatures and a long winded, slow moving dirge about life on a cattle ranch besieged by unbelievable drug smugglers who have a historical score to settle.
Crossers lightly investigates the lives of those who inhabit the borderland between America and Mexico, sometimes called Amexica, as it is by another journalist Ed Vulliamy in his book Amexica. Here is an arid nothingness populated by ranchers and narco’s, by endless skies and Catholic iconography, hills adorned with burning candles and dead babies ripped by coyotes from the stomachs of their mothers who died trying to cross over. With so much going on Caputo attempts to craft this many threaded story by over-weaving some strands and under attending to others. The result is a lopsided book that is heavy on back story and light on plot, pace and purpose.
Amongst this chaos there is still a story, there’s no disputing that Caputo can spin a yarn, can choose a setting that hints at high level crimes of the body, mind and economy and in so doing has you captive, awaiting. But that’s just it, what you’re waiting for never comes.
We are never invited deeper than the vast surface of these people’s lives, given only the obvious thought bubbles of their apparently one dimensional thinking, told rather than inferred the larger implications. As William Vollmann puts it in his review of the book for the NY Times “Caputo has stencilled his villains out of the cheapest cardboard he could find.” And when an author does this I tend to respond by disengaging, feeling as I do that my intellect has been judged unworthy of deep thought, of considered feeling or complicated analysis. In fact I left Crossers so unsatisfied I turned to Vulliamy’s journalism for some more in depth schooling on the history, sociology and mystery of the Mexican/American border.
When non-fiction tells a more compelling tale than fiction I tend to feel something has misfired but if you’re off overseas and you want something to read on the plane then I’d safely tuck this into your hands.
Lily Richards, Ex-Unity Auckland