The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in Philip Caputo (2)


Hunter's Moon by Philip Caputo

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on August 6, 2019

Hunter’s Moon is billed as “a novel in stories.” The first few stories appear to be related only by location (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and hunting. The eventual reappearance of characters in earlier stories begins to justify the use of the word “novel,” although this is really a collection of stories that are linked not just by recurring characters but by the theme of men searching for ways to cope with damaged lives.

Hunting makes the difference between life and death stark, as do these stories. They aren’t the kind of hunting stories that might have appeared in Boy’s Life. One begins with this sentence: “I’ve understood why a son might be driven to kill a cruel father, but a father murdering his son, no matter how delinquent, has always struck me as an unthinkable crime against nature, right up to the moment when my son made me think it.”

The first story sets the stage for several that follow. Paul Egremont and Tom Muhlen must babysit their friend Bill Erickson on a hunting trip. Bill’s wife has instructed them to put Zoloft in his orange juice and to keep him from drinking. Soon after the story begins, Bill is dead. The circumstances of the death are initially ambiguous, and that ambiguity comes back to haunt his widow in a later story. Her story involves making a new life and meeting a new (married) hunter.

Jeff is ostensibly on a hunting trip in the UP with his elderly father Hal, having been persuaded by his siblings to take the old man off their hands for a bit. Jeff and Hal drive to a cabin to meet Jeff’s three friends. When they aren’t hunting, and even when they are, they fill time by airing old grievances.

In the most eventful story, Will Treadwell is hired as a guide to takes two cops bowhunting. A perpetually offended local redneck decides to go hunting for Will and the cops. The encounter brings back Will’s memories of Vietnam. A later story addresses Will’s poor adjustment to retirement after selling a bar, some years after he last worked as a guide. He’s trying to forget all the pain in his past rather than learning how to live with it, and it is changing him into a person he doesn’t want to be.

The son who makes his father contemplate murder is Trey, son of Paul Egremont, and Paul’s thought occurs not on a UP hunting trip but on a fishing trip in Alaska. Neither he nor his son are fundamentally bad people. The question is whether the man-against-nature challenge they confront will inspire either or both of them to gain a new perspective on their lives and relationship.

Will’s hunting friend Phil tells the last story. Phil, like Will, is a Vietnam veteran. Phil tells of his experience as a combat journalist; Will tells the story of his former bartender, a post-9/11 veteran whose life has gone to ruin. Will is now volunteering at a wellness center as a mentor for veterans who need help readjusting. The center was founded by characters we meet in an earlier story. Phil’s reaction to their New Age methodology lightens a serious story about the horror of war and its impact on people who witness indiscriminate destruction. As Phil comes to realize, a true war story has “no heroes, no excitement, and no redemption” and the people who tell them are also, like the dead and maimed they describe, casualties of war.

As we reencounter characters from earlier stories, we see how events shape lives, how people change in response to their experiences, sometimes reimaging their lives and learning to find comfort inside their skin. At the same time, the final story makes clear that taking control of our lives after tragic or disheartening experiences is challenging. It takes time to make positive changes. Sometimes help is required, but nobody changes until they are ready, and we have very little ability to hasten that journey.

The stories have a collective power, an energy that builds. The last story would be powerful if it stood alone, but the reader’s familiarity with Will adds an extra dimension of understanding. With the exception of the story that focuses on Bill’s widow, this is an exceptionally masculine book, but it portrays solitary men with an honesty that male-centric “tough guy” thrillers never achieve. Some of the stories are stronger than others, but they work together to convey a deep understanding of broken lives and wounded men.



Some Rise by Sin by Philip Caputo

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on May 9, 2017

With its invocation of a flawed priest struggling with moral choices in a harsh land, Some Rise by Sin channels Graham Greene and Umberto Eco. Priests make interesting characters because their failings and hypocrisies are sharpened by the pious and virtuous lives to which they aspire. They also face particular challenges as they try to balance religious and secular law and moral imperatives that might be at odds with their faith. Philip Caputo does justice to those themes.

Father Riordan feels his faith is being put to the test in Mexico. He is saying too many funeral masses for young people he should be marrying. Mexico’s cartels and gangs have splintered, but the war between crime and the state continues, except when the criminals and the corrupt government are working together. Riordan’s village has armed itself in self-defense, prompting the army’s efforts to disarm them, sometimes with results that are fatal to unarmed villagers who demonstrate against the army.

Father Riordan would like to end the death of innocents but an army captain, supported by the federales, has a different plan. He wants Riordan to violate the sanctity of the confessional, to become an informant against villagers who help the criminals (usually because they face death if they refuse).

Ultimately, Riordan must make a choice. If he does not reveal what he learned in a confession, innocent people will surely die. If he does break the seal of the confession, he sends a bad message about the trustworthiness of the church and the value of the sacrament.

It is that choice that gives Some Rise by Sin much of its dramatic tension. Similar issues provide insight into Riordan’s character. How can Riordan help a young girl move on with her life when he must tell her that it would be sinful to abort the fetus that was conceived by rape?

Riordan feels powerless trying to do good while surrounded by bandits and drug dealers who kill easily and without remorse. And he feels ineffectual when he hears confessions from young men who will not change their behavior, because they cannot change without forfeiting their lives. All of that makes Riordan an interesting character, and Philip Caputo has the strong writing ability that is required to convey those moral dilemmas in convincing terms without resorting to melodrama.

Some Rise by Sin asks us to chew upon the notion that “the devil’s minions are numerous … they roam the world, seeking the ruin of souls.” Some people (perhaps not Riordan) believe that to be literally true, but as a metaphor for evil and temptation, there is little doubt that the notion is valid. Can evil be exorcised as a demon might? Perhaps, if you believe (as a priest suggests) that evil is irrational and cannot be “overcome by reason.” On the other hand, reason might be the best and only weapon that saves us from irrational evil.

The other characters are also an interesting mix. They include gangsters, cops (mostly corrupt), parishioners, a female assassin, and a couple of American lesbians. Lisette is a doctor who has founded a small clinic in Riordan’s remote village, and her bipolar partner is an artist named Pamela. Their relationship drama involves Lisette’s uncertainty about the role in which Pamela has cast her.

At some point, the spotlight shifts from Riordan to Lisette, their stories tied together by the police and drug gangs. The story is less compelling when it drifts away from Riordan, but by the end, the focus is back on the story’s most interesting character. All of the characters are strong and the novel raises challenging moral and political questions, including whether Mexico can overcome its tradition of retribution, the need for blood to compensate blood. While Some Rise by Sin might not appeal to readers who are looking for a thriller (although it does have some tense, but nicely unstated, moments), it should appeal to readers who will appreciate a literary glimpse at a troubled country.