Crossers (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
In eight novels and several volumes of nonfiction, Philip Caputo has explored issues related to violence, war, terrorism, exploitation, and masculinity. His characters constantly find themselves tested by forces over which they have no control. A growing number of novelists have tackled the tragedy of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their consequences. Some have focused on the larger issues the attacks raised, while others have concentrated on their specific effects on individual characters. Crossers takes the latter approach. Unable to overcome his grief at losing his wife in the Twin Towers attack, Gil Castle moves to his family’s Arizona ranch only to discover that greed, violence, and inhumanity are inescapable.
Caputo makes Crossers both challenging and rewarding by interweaving the fifty-six-year-old Gil’s tale with that of his Arizona ancestors, primarily his grandfather Ben Erskine, a legendary lawman and “the last ember of the true Old West.” Caputo hints early on that Ben’s actions, which include killing twelve men, will have effects on Gil and others, but he delays revealing the connections between the past and the present until their consequences begin to unravel lives. This structure causes Crossers to have a greater emotional impact than it would have had if it had been told in chronological order. The novel is an epic account of how little things can change over the course of a century. Villains are different, but ethical dilemmas remain as murky as ever.
Ben is thirteen in 1903, conducting himself as if he is living in the legendary Old West. Sent on an errand into Mexico by his uncle, Joshua Pittman, Ben kills a Mexican in self-defense and throws the body down a mine shaft. This event is one of several instances of subtle irony employed by Caputo. The reckless Ben, compelled by an unquestioned code of rugged manliness, reflects little on his actions, and a similar case of self-defense will have unexpected effects on his grandchildren and on the family of his victim. Joshua tells Ben, “It is a terrible thing to kill a man, even when it is justified,” but the boy is deaf to this lesson. Caputo skillfully connects this small-scale personal war with the events of September 11 without belaboring the point. People kill other people for complicated reasons, and even when they feel they are justified because of religious, political, and family concerns, morality is corrupted in ways they could not have foreseen.
Caputo imparts to Ben Erskine’s chapters a sense of verisimilitude and historical sweep by presenting them as transcripts of a 1966 oral history project in which Ben’s life was recounted by those who knew him. Ben is repeatedly shown as a man with an unwavering code: “having solved so many crimes, having survived so many dangers, he begins to think of himself as a favored of the gods, as bulletproof.He comes to believe in his own legend.” Caputo manages to make Ben both larger-than-life and humanly flawed. While some worship him as a hero, his daughter Grace, Gil’s mother, has conflicted feelings about the man she sees as an anachronism. Timothy Forbes, a newspaper reporter, thinks Ben became a lawman to avoid becoming a criminal.
Running parallel to Ben’s story is the much less adventurous life of his grandson, senior vice president for the world’s fourth-largest investment firm. Caputo emphasizes their differences from the beginning of the novel. While his friend T. J. Babcock describes the charismatic Ben as “relaxed and coiled at the same time,” Gil has “the patrician severity of a Florentine prince,” though “his looks lacked the voltage to draw second glances from women.” After the death of Amanda, his beloved second wife, Gil no longer feels energized by New York’s financial district or managing half a billion dollars in assets.
Despite being encouraged by his counselor and his two daughters to move on with his life, Gil cannot escape the past, which clings “to him like a second skin.” Unable to understand the motives of the September 11 terrorists, Gil can find little comfort beyond reading Roman Stoics such as Seneca. After a year of mourning, he realizes that “his whole benign life and the...
(The entire section is 1742 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
Booklist 105, no. 19/20 (June 1, 2009): 4.
Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 17 (September 1, 2009): 905.
Library Journal 134, no. 12 (July 1, 2009): 79.
Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2009, p. E10.
The New York Times Book Review, October 18, 2009, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly 256, no. 24 (June 15, 2009): 79.