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Know the West

Pulp friction


Philip Caputo
480 pages, hardcover: $27.95.
Knopf, 2009.

The personal and political tensions surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border seem like ideal topics for renowned war correspondent, veteran novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Philip Caputo. His seventh novel, however, is the literary equivalent of a popcorn flick. As a meditation on post-9/11 border relations, Crossers relies heavily on a handful of warmed-over notions -- that the border is more a symbol than an actual impediment, that Mexican immigrants are “taking back” what once was theirs. As a crime drama, it's as chock-full of one-dimensional baddies and melodramatic hero-speak as an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. There's even a romantic subplot pairing the reluctant protagonist with a feisty (and, as we're repeatedly reminded, busty) leading lady. Throw in a cute kid and a car chase, and you've got yourself a summer blockbuster.

The plot revolves around Gil Castle, a 9/11 widower hiding from his demons at his cousin's border-abutting Arizona cattle ranch. Predictably, Castle learns that home on the range ain't what it used to be, and his rancher kin deliver a few heavy-handed lessons about estate taxes, encroaching development, and the myriad other challenges facing small-scale ranchers. Castle's adopted spread has more immediate problems, though, in the form of Mexican traffickers who traverse it while shuttling drugs and undocumented migrants across the border. When two of the latter turn up dead on the property, it touches off a far-fetched narrative involving a sadistic-but-sexy Mexican drug lord, a triple-agent undercover federale, and the secret legacy of Castle's rootin', tootin' local-sheriff granddad. Dim the lights; cue the John Williams score.

The book's most provocative moments occur when Caputo juxtaposes Al-Qaeda-style international terrorism with the sort of gangland violence that has characterized borderland smuggling for decades. The latter is “just a different kind of terrorism” according to one hard-boiled Border Patrol agent, an assertion that stirs mixed feelings in the 9/11-afflicted Castle. Caputo gets credit for not pushing the comparison too aggressively, instead leaving the reader to ponder it, even as the credits roll.