The sins of the fathers are visited on their progeny with a vengeance in this somber novel of life in paradise by Caputo (Acts of Faith, 2005, etc.).
In the grasslands of the San Rafael Valley, straddling the border between Arizona and Mexico, 13-year-old Ben Erskine rides out of the settlement of Lochiel with his prize possession, a hunting knife that he must put to unhappy use soon after the narrative opens on Aug. 8, 1903. Having tasted violence, Ben now seems condemned to live a life of it, serving the law on one side of the international line and the Mexican Revolution on the other, working as a soldier of fortune years after the hostilities end. Fast-forward to the present: Trying to piece his life back together after losing his wife in the attack on the World Trade Center, Gil Castle takes refuge in the Arizona homestead built by his great-uncle, Ben’s brother Jeff. Gil soon meets another man whose life was upended by 9/11. After an entire year’s crop rotted on the runway waiting for U.S. airspace to reopen, Miguel Espinoza’s produce export business failed and he became a northbound border crosser (counterbalance to early 20th-century southbound crosser Ben). Complicating bicultural, binational life are bad guys of many stripes, dealing drugs, smuggling in undocumented workers, trading in human misery and, in the end, wrapping the once-quiet but never innocent San Rafael Valley in fresh bloodshed. This is literary country well covered by Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone, Charles Bowden and other gimlet-eyed students of the borderlands, but Caputo adds to it with his sharply observed portraits of the way people in stress actually think, act, talk and, sometimes, die. He understands and cogently conveys the region’s seductive beauty and the many dangers it poses.
A masterful tale about what comes of “trying to escape history”—from which, the author gives us to understand, there is no safe place to hide.