This one will probably be my book of the year. I have one more candidate in mind and haven’t reviewed the entire list, so I’m not ready to commit and will have to keep everyone in suspense for the time being. I just finished Crossers yet feel ready to go back and read it again. Caputo’s novel is positively Greek in its depiction of human existence as a baffling combination of fate and will. Mostly fate. There are avenging furies (embodied in one character) who mysteriously bedevil and endanger our protagonist and everyone around him. There is a twisted chorus (embodied in another character) who gives the upper world and the nether world equal time and dispenses some trenchant philosophy as he travels from one to the other. Said chorus also adds a measure of magical realism, appropriate to the context of an hispanic culture, in his ability to make contact with his preconscious mind, to do such things as “see” smells and “hear” colors.
From the prosaic perspective, Crossers focuses on Gil Castle, a Wall Streeter, whose wife (second) was vaporized on 9/11. Unable to handle the grief, he tries suicide but can’t handle that, so dumps everything and heads to his first wife’s family’s ranch in the Arizona wild near the Mexican border. He takes up residence in a one-room adobe hut and goes about pursuing a life of isolation and pain. He does okay with that for a while, but of course, events intervene, and. . . That’s the conventional novel part of the story.
However, we move beyond convention and onto another level as, artfully and magically, Caputo interweaves a history of the family and land dating back to the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. This aspect of the story has the patina of documentary, but it is every bit as captivating as the core love story. Often moreso. The book begins to embrace so much reality that it takes on Oresteian dimensions. Biblical dimensions, too, in the sense of sins being visited upon families down through the generations. In this larger context the title itself acquires connotations way beyond its application to illegal south-to-north immigration.
Human history can be viewed (opines the chorus) as a cycle of migrations prompted by war, hunger, economics, curiosity, thirst for new beginnings, and more. And the migrations move in cycles of centuries and millennia. Viewed thusly, our current hysteria about the sacredness of our borders appears comic. I recall being amused on our travels by Thai concerns over Lao and Cambodian illegals; about China’s upset over North Korean border jumpers; about Turkish upsets over Bulgarian incursions. And we thought we were all alone with our trespassers. However, our anger and anxiety is also essential, for we live our lives in a now, not in a millennium, and it’s impossible to view the annihilation of one’s home and hearth as just another historical inevitability. Caputo shows this bewildering dichotomy in the interplay of the events of the central story as well as in the events of history/family. He not simply “shows” it, but helps us experience the emotional and intellectual and political dilemmas inherent in the paradox. So, we get caught up in the standard dramas of immigrants, Anglos, drug runners and the like as portrayed in the daily news and, say, T.C. Boyle’s quite good novel, The Tortilla Curtain, or movies like El Norte and Sin Nombre, but we also get a deeply emotional and intellectual insight into and experience of, the human drama then, and now, and undoubtedly to come.
The more I write here, the more I admire, respect, enjoy this book. Until I get talked out of it, I will consider it a masterpiece.