A Writing Life

Caputo is at the top of his game. His ninth and newest book, Acts of Faith, published in April by Knopf, has received glowing reviews and made the “Editor’s Choice” list in the New York Times Book Review. At age sixty-four, he is athletic, youthful looking, and affable in a Midwestern kind of way. At the same time, he possesses a quiet intensity and a watchfulness — as if he’s perpetually on assignment or ready for the next tour of duty — that suggests this may not be such a tranquil setting, nor his studio an escape from the real world.

Evidence abounds. There are the black and white photographs from tours of duty and writing assignments: A shell-shocked Marine at the Battle of Hue; flares lighting the sky at the start of the Tet offensive; a young Caputo in a helicopter during the fall of Saigon. There are also the scars — one, a raised web of tissue on the inside of his left ankle—is the exit wound from a hail of AK-47 fire he took while reporting on Lebanon’s civil war.

And there are, of course, the books. Caputo’s six novels and four works of nonfiction share volatile settings and extreme situations, and a preoccupation with the conflicts of human nature: morality and necessity, altruism and greed, self-delusion and acceptance. Violence erupts in all of them.

Cheever country, this isn’t.

Philip Caputo was born in Chicago in 1941 and grew up in the then-rural suburbs. “As a kid I was restless and curious and adventurous,” he says. “I was always in the woods hunting and fishing or hopping freight trains to other towns.” He attended Purdue and Loyola universities, where he wrote for the student newspapers and the Loyola literary magazine. Enlisting in the Marine Corps after college, he was part of the first deployment of troops to Vietnam, and from a tent in the field wrote two war poems that were published in a small literary magazine.

While still in Vietnam he also began a fictionalized account of his experiences “under this delusion,” he says, “that I could actually write a novel about the war, and fairly quickly.” After the service he went first to Paris — to get away from the war — then to Spain, and finally to England, where he read Sigfried Sassoon’s Memories of an Infantry Officer. That book gave him the idea to write his story as a memoir, to be titled A Rumor of War.

Back home Caputo wrote sales and ad copy “in near despair” before landing a job as a cub reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He reported on the Kent State shootings and in 1972 won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of election fraud in Chicago under Mayor Richard J. Daley, father of the city’s current mayor. Promoted to foreign correspondent, he was sent to Afghanistan and Lebanon. All the while, he says, “I kept trying to find time to write my book, but the job was demanding, plus I wasn’t psychologically ready to write it yet.”

In 1975, however, while assigned to the paper’s Rome bureau, he managed to turn out the first fifty pages, which he eventually sent to a young literary agent he’d met named Aaron Priest (now head of the respected Aaron Priest Agency in New York). Priest promptly sold the work. When Caputo asked the Tribune for a leave of absence to finish the book, he was not only denied but sent back to Beirut, where he was promptly wounded by Muslim militia.

Caputo finished the book in the early fall of 1976 while convalescing, and in May of the following year A Rumor of War was published to critical and public acclaim. “Its reception was a thousand light years from anything I’d expected,” he says. Two years later, with a healthy advance from the publisher to write a novel, he quit the Tribune to write fiction full time. Over the next twenty years, he would produce a steady stream of novels and nonfiction books as well as countless freelance articles for adventure magazines, Esquire and the Sunday New York Times Magazine, where he was a contributing editor.

It was in 1999, while on assignment in Kenya covering the massive aid airlift to the victims of Sudan’s prolonged civil war, that Caputo began gathering the seeds for Acts of Faith. “I had heard tales of bush pilots flying guns under the guise of humanitarian aid,” he says, “and I found that very intriguing; it was the sort of thing that I’d always specialized in — ambiguities between right and wrong. And I thought, I oughta make this into a novel.”

Set in Sudan in the 1990s at the height of the war, Acts of Faith is a sprawling adventure story teeming with characters — aid workers and missionaries, bush pilots and profiteers, Muslim warriors and Nuban rebels — whose lives intersect in the starkly beautiful, surreal landscape.

Clearly, Phil Caputo is captivated by exotic settings. Yet, as in his earlier books, his real interests here are the ways in which extreme situations bring out humans’ capacity for opposing goals, and how that ambivalence sets into motion “the law of unintended consequences.”

Nowhere do these themes play out more forcefully than in the new novel. In the New York Times, critic Michiko Kakutani called Acts of Faith “a Conradian tale about idealism run amok.” Another Times reviewer, Lucian K. Truscott IV, compared Caputo to Graham Greene, saying that “he shares Greene’s conviction that good intents have a way of going bad.”

Joseph Conrad and Greene are fitting references. Their complete works sit on bookshelves in Caputo’s house. “Those are two of my favorite writers,” he says. Other reviewers, meanwhile, have looked to the new book for the author’s stance on politics. Appearing on “Charlie Rose” in late June, Caputo recalls the host asking him, “Well, what about Vietnam? The premier’s visiting President Bush as we speak.” His answer? “Well, great, wonderful, but I don’t know. This is fiction.”

All the same, the book raises questions about foreign affairs for a reason: Caputo has witnessed firsthand what happens when ideologies clash. “Baghdad now strikes me as being close to Beirut,” he says, recalling that he watched that city devolve into something approaching utter chaos. “It was Muslims fighting Christians, all over a kind of idealism. I am suspicious of idealism. Whether it’s political or religious, the ideal is so pure in the eyes of the people who are trying to spread it that they’re willing to do a lot of awful things in its name.”

More than anything else, though, Phil Caputo appears endlessly interested in the vagaries of the human heart. “I’m drawn to exotic locations and extreme situations not as a thrill seeker but as a student of human nature,” he says. “Most of the places I’m sent on assignment fill me with dread and loathing — I was in places where I wondered whether I was going to be above ground come sunset — but I’m drawn to them because they strip bare the pretenses of who we think we are and expose what our natures really are.”

The depths of Caputo’s own nature had become shockingly apparent to him years earlier. Toward the end of his tour of duty in Vietnam, he sent out a patrol that wound up killing civilians, an event described in A Rumor of War. “I didn’t give a damn,” he says now. “In the aftermath of that, I realized what I’d become — I’d become a killer.”  He was also becoming a serious writer — as much from a need to alchemize material that raw, perhaps, as from natural talent.

All writing may be an act of faith to one degree or another, but Phil Caputo’s latest novel seemed to demand more of it than other efforts. For one thing, at 669 pages, it is his longest and most complex work. For another, he wasn’t sure who, aside from himself, would be interested.

“When they heard where I was going to set this thing, my agent and editor were less than enthusiastic, but I felt  compelled to write this book,” he says. “In becoming a writer you can never look upon it as a career. It really is a calling. I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is going to be a long book, with lots of characters, a complex plot, set in a place that nobody gives a damn about.’ But I also thought, so what? If five people read this book, I don’t care. I just want to write the book that I want to write. And I did.”

Although he supplemented the advance he received for the novel with more than a dozen assignments and two nonfiction books, he credits his wife’s support for sustaining him during the writing of Acts of Faith. Caputo has been married three times — he has two grown sons — and divorced twice. The emotional commute between home and his novels’ settings has proved as difficult as the writing itself.

“It’s never easy coming out of that other world,” he says. “You absolutely must be there. You walk out of that cottage, and you’ve been in what amounts to a virtual reality, then suddenly you’re confronted by this sort of suburban reality. It’s never easy on the spouse or the family of a writer.”

Being a friend of Phil Caputo’s, on the other hand, may be easier. He has many. Most, not surprisingly, are in the word game. But what is surprising at the competitive upper levels is how many of Caputo’s friends are loyal fans of his work.

Stephen Byers, editor-at-large at National Geographic Adventure Magazine, hired Caputo five years ago to write a series of articles, three of which became books: The Ghosts of Tsavo, from a cover story on the man-eating lions of East Africa; The Voyage, a novel written earlier but published after an essay in the magazine on a 500-mile solo sail in the Atlantic; and Acts of Faith, from a feature story on the moral dilemma of the aid workers running guns in the Sudan. “His pieces always have that Caputo zing,” Byers says. “It’s that interesting weave of the specifics of dramatic action with a distinctive voice. His trick is to marry great reporting with lyrical storytelling. He has the ability to string together honestly depicted scenes and compelling characters in a way that doesn’t feel strung together.”

While at the Chicago Tribune in the early seventies, Caputo worked nights with Bill Mullen, a cultural affairs reporter at the paper today. “He was a star almost right away,” Mullen says. “He never talked that much about himself or the marines, but he was always kind of military in his bearing. He was disciplined and knew what he wanted.”

At the height of the war in Vietnam, the paper devoted an entire issue of its Sunday magazine to the conflict and asked Caputo to write about his experience. “I was shocked,” Mullen says. “It was so good I said to him, ‘Why did you write that for the Tribune? It should’ve been in Esquire!’ He later told me that gave him the idea to make a book out of the piece.”

Novelist Jim Harrison met Caputo nearly thirty years ago, after Caputo’s praise of a Harrison novella, Legends of the Fall, helped make that book a bestseller. The two have fished and hunted and have kept up a long-distance correspondence ever since. “He’s sort of an Airedale of writers — very faithful to his friends and very tenacious about his work,” Harrison says. “I can tell well in advance of a new subject. He gets that thousand-yard-stare and a look that says, ‘Where’s the new meat?’”

Caputo’s loyalty also extends to his hunting dog that accompanies him to the studio every morning. “Once, he was in the Sudan trapped in the bush taking a lot of fire as he was trying to meet a plane to get back to Kenya,” Harrison notes. “And he lay on the ground missing his dog — which pissed off his wife.”

Four years after beginning Acts of Faith, Caputo wrote the last word in May 2004. On June 21, in his only local appearance, Caputo signed copies and read from the book at an event cosponsored by the New Canaan Library and RJ Julia at Elm Street Books. Reading may come as a welcome relief for many professional writers, but this one was no doubt working — observing the audience and taking mental notes for his next novel.

“I guess it’s a sort of cocktail of motives,” Caputo says of his writing habit. “There’s no denying that I have to do a lot of things just to earn a buck. But this is also what I do — not only what I do, but what I am — and it gets me out of bed in the morning.  It’s just an immense curiosity about the world and about people, literally and figuratively. I’m always wondering what’s around the bend.”

Like many authors he is reluctant to say too much about new work. Yet as his guest prepares to leave, Caputo calls him back into the house for this late-breaking news bulletin, composed on the spot: “As I now conceive of him, the main character, Gil Castle, will be from New Canaan. He was born and raised in Darien. He’s going to live on Oenoke Lane. He’s an investment banker, although that could change. He loses his wife in 9/11 and in order to escape the pain, goes out to live on a ranch in Arizona that was in his grandmother’s family for generations, where he must deal with the troubles he was trying to escape.”

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