When writer Philip Caputo first came to Patagonia in 1996, he wasn't looking for the Arizona-Mexico borderlands to become a canvas for his fiction. More than anything, he wanted to escape the crowds and cold of Connecticut and spend a few months every year roaming the mountains with his hunting dogs and his rifle, hiking and riding horses through the tall grass of the San Rafael Valley.
He's done that, and it's been good. But the borderlands have a way of taking whatever part of you is given over to creativity and setting it on fire. The result, 2 1/2 years in the making, is his latest novel, Crossers.
"It wasn't like I was consciously accumulating border lore," says Caputo, sipping morning coffee amid the blessed silence of downtown Patagonia. "But I heard one story after another and began to get interested in it."
He lived some of those stories, too. Out with his English setters, he'd sometimes bump into illegal aliens and drug-runners, some of the latter heading south.
He tells a story about encountering four south-bounders who asked him directions to the Border Patrol road. They were not the bad-ass types who make roaming the border country a tricky proposition. These were $10-a-day mooks, what Caputo describes as "down-home boys from Santa Cruz, across the line ... a really hang-dog looking crew."
Exhausted and unexcited about the prospect of walking back home, they knew if they reached the main road, where Border Patrol was likely to find them, they'd get a lift to the Mexican line and shoved across—standard procedure if the law can't prove they were trafficking. Caputo told them the best place to go to get captured, and so went another day on the border.
The name Caputo should ring a bell. He's been a writer on the national stage since 1977, when his Vietnam memoir was published. Many believe A Rumor of War occupies an honored spot among great Vietnam books. Caputo was with the first Marine combat unit to arrive in Vietnam in March 1965.
Later, he was part of a team of Chicago Tribune reporters awarded a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for exposing voter fraud, and in 1975, he returned to Vietnam to cover Saigon's fall, getting out on one of the last flights. Since then, he's written four works of nonfiction and seven novels, including Indian Country, Acts of Faith and Horn of Africa.
He seems to thrive in war zones, or near them, like the one beyond his backyard in Mexico, where the drug violence occurring now is so hideous that "it seems like the end of civilization." He wrote about it recently for The Atlantic.
Caputo pursued the border story for the first time in 2006, when Virginia Quarterly Review asked him to do a piece of nonfiction on Arizona's crucible. He went to a number of hard-hit border ranches, which most reporters don't do, and talked to the folks who see it firsthand. His piece, an honest look at what was happening on the ground, was published in the spring of 2007.
His first idea for a novel revolved around a fascinating real-life border character named Jim Hathaway, a soldier of fortune, cattleman and Santa Cruz County deputy sheriff who also fought in the Mexican Revolution. "He'd actually been in a gunfight in 1951 and killed a man," says Caputo. "Originally, I was going to write about him, this fellow born in the last twilight of the old West."
From that original spark, he toyed with doing two novels, one about Hathaway and another about his descendants. The finished product wound up being a combination, an account of Hathaway—Ben Erskine in Crossers—and the similar lives led by his modern-day descendants.
As much as Caputo appreciates Arizona history, he decided his original concept wouldn't be enough. "It needed a contemporary element," he says.
When he added the contemporary element, a funny thing happened: It looked a lot like the old West.
The main character in Crossers is Gil Castle, a well-off Easterner seeking to rebuild his life following the death of his wife in the Sept. 11 attacks.
In desperate straits emotionally, he comes to the San Ignacio Ranch outside of Patagonia to live in a two-room cabin, part of the original homestead built by his great-uncle. Castle wants to find his soul again, to sit on his front porch and read the Roman stoic Seneca as he looks "out upon the grasslands and tree-speckled canyons of the San Rafael Valley."
But Castle soon learns the Arizona border banished peace a long time ago, and replaced it with drug cartels, vicious bandits, destitute migrants and old hatreds that breed new vengeance and bloodshed.
Castle finds himself stuck in the middle of the drug war. At bottom, though, Caputo's story is about the gargoyle-like tentacles of modern life, and how they reach into places that should be sanctuaries.
Patagonia is such a place, 18 miles from the line and occasionally the scene of high-speed chases and break-ins. But mostly, it's quiet, and Caputo, now 68, feels safe here, saying, "They don't shoot quail hunters." But he hedges his bets anyway, always carrying a .357 when he's in the backcountry.
During our interview, he fields numerous calls and one FedEx delivery, which particularly excites him: He has been waiting for a special pair of binoculars to view the night stars, one of the things he loves about Patagonia.
He loves the unpretentiousness of it, too, and the "wonderful, lively little public library" for which he has made occasional fundraising appearances. Caputo describes Patagonia as having a good share of educated people who like to read, and retired people who don't want to live on a golf course.
"If you look in the phone book, it's all Herrera, Sanchez, Garcia, a lot of old families," he says. "It's a very Mexican town, with a sprinkling of off-center gringos like myself."
Caputo suspects locals regard him as a snowbird, but he doesn't think of himself that way. "I've gotten to know a lot of people, ranchers who live outside town, people in town, like Charlie at the gas station," he says. "Patagonia is my second home, but emotionally, it's my first home. I feel like I belong here more than I do in the East."
Caputo loved the West even before he saw it. As a kid at a Catholic boys' school in Oak Park, Ill.—Hemingway's hometown—he remembers the wall of his Latin class, which the priest had adorned with posters of various grand places in the West.
In his boredom, he'd stare at them and see his escape, just as Gil Castle saw his in Patagonia, and as the crossers of Caputo's title see theirs in America.
About those flooding across our border, Caputo is sympathetic, though he's clear about the tortures they bring to citizens. But a novel is about character and story, not issues, and Crossers makes both work, with a couple of quibbles.
His choice of setting necessitates a lot of explaining about the unique world of the border. At times, Caputo explains too much, with characters that seem to embody every viewpoint. Reporters who turn to fiction tend to get trapped in their research notebooks, providing too much who, what, when, where, why and how, and the result is a story too "told" at times.
Caputo also has a long reach, linking his story to the Iraq invasion, for example, without much payoff. And the angst of his main character, understandable but overdone, tends to diminish this tortured chap, as does telling us his first wife left him for another woman.
But Caputo gets the big stuff right. Crossers takes us through generations of Arizona history with understanding, intelligence and beautiful language. I finished reading some passages and went back to read them again because they were so well-done. He's describing our backyard, and his words let us see it: "The range lands loped away toward the mountains in the East and West, the grass the color of champagne in the afternoon light and the cottonwoods marking the course of the Santa Cruz River bare of leaves."
The best parts of Crossers come when Caputo puts a gun in a man's hand and takes us through to its firing. The ending is like that, and early on, he gives a heart-pounding description of a hit in a restaurant in Nogales that concludes with "the mad gulping of police and ambulance sirens" on Mariposa Road.
I've probably eaten at that joint. I've driven Mariposa. It's good stuff. I love, too, the telling line spoken after a character dies, and human skulls are found in his workshop: "This is the border. There's lots of dead people around here ain't in cemeteries."
Among readers and reviewers, Caputo might encounter an undeserved problem. It already surfaced in a New York Times review in which writer William Vollmann said the antagonist Yvonne, a drug-snorting psychopathic kingpin killer with cleavage, is as convincing as Cruella de Vil.
If you know the border and have met some of the epic characters who populate it, not only does Yvonne seem believable; you figure there are dozens more just like her. Others might question the insane reality Crossers describes, and that would be too bad.
Don't be fooled. Caputo is solid in his understanding of our border. His feet and his eyes are upon these great lands, and from the beauty of his writing, it's clear his heart is, too.