(Photo: Michael Priest)
Philip Caputo’s Novel
Some Rise by Sin
Arises from His
By GREG BEAUBIEN April 18, 2017
PHILIP CAPUTO THRIVES ON DANGER. As a war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, he covered the fall of Saigon in 1975 and was later wounded in Lebanon and held prisoner by Palestinian fighters. In 1977, at the age of 36, he established his career as an author with his best-selling book A Rumor of War, a memoir of his experiences as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam.
Caputo is also a world traveler. His novel Horn of Africa (1980) is set in Ethiopia; his book of three novellas Exiles (1997) partly in Australia and Vietnam; and Acts of Faith (2005) in Sudan. His new novel and sixteenth book, Some Rise by Sin—which Henry Holt and Company published May 9—takes place in Mexico, and derives from his reporting on the country’s narco gangs.
Caputo is drawn to conflict zones, but his novels are more character-driven than propelled by plot. Some Rise by Sin tells the story of a middle-aged American priest exiled to a remote town in Mexico after his tangential involvement in a church scandal in Los Angeles. A brutal, pseudo-religious drug gang is terrorizing the Mexican village, and the priest—a tough man of tested faith wracked by his own memories and desires—is faced with the moral and spiritual quandary of whether to betray his vows to fight the criminals.
Some Rise by Sin includes two characters who originally appeared in Caputo’s 2009 novel Crossers, which likewise took place in the border territory between Arizona and Mexico. Although Some Rise by Sin picks up the story of those two characters 10 years later, they are not main characters in either book. The new novel is “loosely related to Crossers, in that two characters from that book reappear in Some Rise By Sin, but it’s not a sequel,” Caputo told Moresby Press.
He explained how his new novel grew from his work as a journalist: “I did two stories on the Mexican drug wars and related border issues,” Caputo said. “One was in 2007 for The Virginia Quarterly Review, the other in 2009 for The Atlantic. The latter assignment, which took me into Juarez and deep into the state of Chihuahua, gave me the inspiration for Some Rise By Sin. My translator and assistant told me a story about a Catholic priest who’d become a snitch for the Mexican Federal Police by revealing the confessions he heard from drug traffickers. In that tale, the priest was Mexican and had turned informant for venal motives. For the purposes of my novel, I created an American missionary priest who violates the seal of the confessional for altruistic reasons.”
By GREG BEAUBIEN April 28, 2017
“THIS BEAUTIFUL, SORROWFUL, BLOOD-SPOTTED COUNTRY” is how Philip Caputo describes Mexico in his new novel Some Rise by Sin, a tale of downtrodden people trying to survive and redeem themselves under the crushing forces of poverty and drug-gang violence. Henry Holt and Company published the book May 9.
The novel’s protagonist, an exiled American priest named Father Timothy Riordan, is assigned to a church in the rural Mexican town of San Patricio, where two young men have been shot dead by soldiers during a peaceful protest. Riordan is asked to approach a brutal local military captain and ask for an apology. The priest finds himself recruited into the role of peace broker between the townspeople and the army—and is then forced to become an informer, undergoing his own crisis of conscience and faith as he breaks the seal of the confessional to pass along tips that might help the army and police fight a sinister drug gang called “The Brotherhood.”
Riordan, a gray-haired, Harley-riding missionary who is strong but compassionate, is an interesting if not necessarily compelling character—though by the end of the book he is certainly memorable. In Caputo’s last two novels, this one and Crossers (2009), which also took place in the border area between Mexico and the United States (Caputo himself lives in Patagonia, Ariz., four months a year), the secondary characters are sometimes more interesting than the protagonists. Two characters from Crossers reappear in Some Rise by Sin: a gay drug lord, and a cop and sometimes-assassin for the drug bosses who has synesthesia and can see sounds and hear colors. In the new novel, a subplot involving an expat American doctor—a lesbian named Lisette—feels incongruous and obligatory.
A masterful craftsman and sympathetic observer of human suffering, Philip Caputo has done the hard reporting to tell such rich, well-informed stories.
In his last couple of novels, Caputo repeats variations on character types: Crossers had a middle-aged woman with a gay, young-adult son; Some Rise by Sin includes a middle-aged, gay woman with a straight, young-adult son. Both books have as secondary characters beautiful, artistic middle-aged women from wealthy American families who, despite their privilege, somehow wind up with crooked teeth. Crossers features a rich, milquetoast Manhattanite who comes to the rescue of his uneducated and cash-strapped Arizona rancher cousin; Some Rise by Sin sees an American priest and doctor saving inhabitants of backward Mexican villages.
Caputo is a fluid storyteller who knows how to create evocative descriptions and keep the reader turning pages, but some of his characters feel unconvincing because their dialogue sounds unnatural—their words often serving to deliver exposition rather than help develop believable personas. Like the expository dialogue, story points are sometimes stated overtly when they would be better left implied, such as “it seemed like a macabre warning.”
The author has an occasional habit of presenting cliched images and then trying to excuse them with lines like, “He was right out of central casting,” or “It was like a scene from The Godfather,” which only remind readers that they’ve seen such things before. It sometimes seems that Caputo can’t decide whether he wants to be a literary novelist or a commercial thriller writer; his books contain somewhat uneasy, if admittedly entertaining, combinations of both.
By the end of Some Rise by Sin, however, we know we’re in the hands of a masterful craftsman and sympathetic observer of human suffering, as well as a journalist who has done the hard reporting that allows him to tell such rich and well-informed stories.