The novelist Philip Caputo served as a Marine lieutenant in the Vietnam and is best known for his classic memoir, A Rumor of War, which was published in 1977 and has remained in print since then. He’s written another Vietnam War novel, Indian Country, his latest book, Some Rise by Sin (Henry Holt, 352 pp., $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is set in the Mexican village of San Patricio beset by a war between a brutal drug cartel and the Mexican Army and the police. It is often hard to tell who is who.
Padre Timothy Riordan is an American missionary priest who has been sent to Mexico more as a punishment than anything else. He buddies up with Lisette Moreno, an American doctor who ministers to the villagers’ health rather than their souls. Her lesbian love affair with artist Pamela Childress adds drama to her life in the village.
From the first page of this novel, the main characters seem headed for a cliff they must inevitably tumble over. It’s no surprise when a real cliff appears in the narrative. Padre Tim is the most tortured soul I’ve encountered in modern lit in a long, long time.
At first I thought that the references to the Vietnam War would be a leit motif that would continue throughout the novel, but I was wrong. Very early in the book we learn that Padre Tim had an elder brother, Sean, who had won a Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam. A few pages later we learn that Sean had come home from Vietnam with eyes coated “in a hard finish that had cracked, like old lacquer, allowing an underlying sorrow to bleed through.”
The next time we encounter Sean, he is paraphrased as saying this about the Vietnam War: “It was the place where you found out that you weren’t who you thought you were.”
Padre Tim is learning in Mexico that who he’d thought he was had been a lie fabricated out of pride. His struggle to figure out how and why an all-loving God allowed—and seemed to encourage—the existence of evil was fated to fail, and to bring down his work as a missionary.
There were no more references to the Vietnam War after that, other than a brief mention that the helicopters and piles of weapons in Vietnam continued to be used by police, soldiers, and drug traffickers.
The rest of the novel is held together by the suffering of Padre Tim. Caputo portrays Tim’s suffering every bit as well as Graham Greene would have done were Tim a whiskey priest. Caputo tells a powerful story in this novel, so powerful that I believed every word of it and figured that he based this narrative on actual events in Mexico.
I highly recommend this new novel by this master story teller who has honed his gift for many decades and is totally on his game in this book.
The author’s website is http://www.philipcaputo.com/