Philip Caputo’s CROSSERS (and a bit about Westerns)
I have been trying to think what category this book fits into. There are thriller elements to the book and it also examines post-9/11 America. But I think the best way to classify it is as a “New Western”. The central character is Gil Castle who has lost his wife in the terrorist attacks on New York. He is completely overcome by his grief and mourning and retreats from his life as a successful Wall Street financial advisor to his estranged family’s cattle ranch in Arizona on the Mexican border.
Caputo weaves together with this the story of Gil’s grandfather, Ben Erskine- a real “old west” character. As we get snippets of Ben’s life we start to see a correlation between the Old West of cowboys and frontier law enforcement and that of the New West of border patrols and smuggling (drugs and people). “Crossing” is a strong theme throughout the book and not just Mexicans crossing the border. There are double-crossers in both law enforcement and within the drug cartels. Gil’s journey is not only cross-country but also from urban to rural and the violence he encounters in New York and Arizona is different but inherent in both. In juxtaposing Gil’s story with that of his grandfather the story crosses generations and examines the sins of one generation and the violence and hatred it sews in the next. At times there are elements of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE POWER OF THE DOG (both of which are better books) but overall CROSSERS is a great read.
The book did get me thinking about the Western as genre though. It is certainly a genre that has waned in recent years but when there are books written or other forms of western stories told they still have a powerful resonance. Hollywood played a big part in the decline of the genre as it pumped out movie after movie and turned westerns into a cliché and the meaning and importance of the genre was lost.
I think the tide began to turn the other way with David Milch’s HBO series DEADWOOD. A TV Series equal with to THE SOPRANOS in many ways. This was a new interpretation of the western, warts and all, and really got to the heart of why the western genre has resonated with people for so long. The town of Deadwood was literally a lawless town for a period as it was officially outside of the United States after the Battle of Little Big Horn. The television series’ initial premise was to examine how law and order existed in a place where it did not technically have any legitimacy. The show also explored many more themes of a frontier town during the gold rush and the language of the show is what I like to refer to as “American Shakespeare”. DEADWOOD made me ‘get’ what a western means.
But me reading in the genre remains very thin. I loved Scott Phillips’ COTTONWOOD and really wish he would write another novel. And just because it is a new Coen Brothers film I have put TRUE GRIT into my ‘to read’ pile. But I would love to know what else is a must read in the western genre. My dad would say I have read Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE but if anyone has any other suggestions I am all ears.