Early in The Line Becomes a River, Francisco Cantú tells his mother his reasons for joining the Border Patrol. "Maybe it's the desert, maybe it's the closeness of life and death, maybe it's the tension between the two cultures we carry inside us. Whatever it is, I'll never understand it unless I'm close to it." It's surreal dialogue, the sort of thing that feels like a promise and only later turns out to be an omen. And like all Cantú's dialogue, it weaves in and out of paragraphs without quotation marks, so nothing interrupts the sense of someone relating a long and terrible dream.
And terrible it is. The Line Becomes a River is caught halfway between memoir and tone poem, as Cantú offers snapshots of his life in and around the Border Patrol. The landscape of the Southwest that was originally his family geography becomes a source of dread, as he tries to make sense of working in an organization that seems to either harden or sink those within it. Those vague hopes of understanding himself dissolve into a series of encounters that haunt him, and questions that only get harder to answer.
Cantú punctuates his brutal reminiscences with pointedly detached academic interludes, sketching some of the issues on each side of the border and bringing outside voices to his increasingly unsettled inner monologue. He lines up Sergio González Rodríguez's reporting on the rise of "femicide" in Ciudad Juárez, surveyors in 1892, David Wood's examination of moral injury — "learning to accept the things you know are wrong," and Cristina Rivera Garza's discussion of fear as a force that shifts reality and must be reconsidered society-wide: "The person who imagines knows, and knows from within, that nothing is natural. Nothing inevitable."
These academic asides are for us — for context, for a little distance. Cantú's own experiences wander between understated and elegiac and an almost Gothic helplessness, trapped in the moment like a nightmare always is. Captured migrants offer to work in the processing station to prove their worth. Cantú gives the shirt off his back to a migrant arrested without one. An agent laughs about running someone over. A dog Cantú's watching gets loose and nearly kills another dog, leaving him helpless to do anything but apologize and wipe off the blood. (The dream moves seamlessly; it's no wonder Cantú's prose has already won him the Pushcart Prize and the Whiting Award.)
The Border Patrol has made the news recently for just the sort of things Cantú describes. And while he doesn't shy away from the dangers the Border Patrol faces (drug smuggling is its own monster here), the humanity of the migrants they arrest stands out against the callousness of Cantú's fellow agents. After he gets out and takes a civilian position, he worries the Border Patrol will never really leave him; reading this book, you have no doubts about why.
The last section of the book refocuses on Cantú's aquaintance José Martínez, who leaves the States to visit his ailing mother and gets caught on the crossing back. The way Cantú navigates the deportation process is more direct than what comes before; this is a case study. There's new immediacy to this issue given recent headlines, and the list of indignities in the process builds to something heart-pounding that no amount of restrained prose can ease. Martínez is deported, naturally; he tries again to get back over the border, naturally; both sides of the family are taken advantage of by black-market agents, naturally.
Beautifully written though the book is, it's a rough read. Cantú's final image of tranquility can't quite shake an earlier admission: "It's like I'm still a part of the thing that crushes." If there's hope here, it comes from the migrants, and from Cantú's friends and family, and the lingering idea that empathy is a force as great as fear. (Nothing is natural. Nothing inevitable.) One of the book's final segments is Martínez in his own words — a thoughtful husband and father, determined to return to the place he calls home, despite the danger. The Line Becomes a River is a beautifully-crafted question; the answer has yet to be written.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.