Caputo, Philip 1941-
CAPUTO, Philip 1941-
PERSONAL: Born June 10, 1941, in Chicago, IL; son of Joseph (a plant manager) and Marie Ylonda (Napolitan) Caputo; married Jill Esther Ongemach (a librarian), June 21, 1969 (divorced, 1982); married Marcelle Lynn Besse, October 30, 1982 (divorced, 1985); married Leslie Blanchard Ware, June 4, 1988; children: (first marriage) Geoffrey Jacob, Marc Antony. Education: Attended Purdue University; Loyola University, Chicago, B.A., 1964. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Deep sea and fly fishing.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Aaron Priest Literary Agency, 708 3rd Ave., New York, NY 10017.
CAREER: Author, journalist, and screenwriter. 3-M Corp., Chicago, IL, promotional writer and member of staff of house paper, 1968-69; Chicago Tribune, Chicago, local correspondent, 1969-72, foreign correspondent in Rome, Beirut, Saigon, and Moscow, 1972-77; freelance writer, 1977—. Mercury-Douglas Productions, Paramount Pictures, screenwriter, 1987—. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1964-67, served in Vietnam; became lieutenant.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, National Writers Union, Writers Guild of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pulitzer Prize (with George Bliss), 1973, for coverage of primary election fraud; George Polk Award, 1973; Illinois Associated Press Award; Illinois United Press Award; Green Gavel Award, American Bar Association; Overseas Press Club award; and Sidney Hillman award.
Horn of Africa (novel), Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1980.
DelCorso's Gallery (novel), Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1983.
Indian Country: A Novel, Bantam (New York, NY), 1987, Vintage (New York, NY), 2004.
Means of Escape: An Imagined Memoir, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
Equation for Evil (novel) HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
Exiles: Three Short Novels (contains Standing In, Paradise, and In the Forest of the Laughing Elephant), Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
The Voyage (novel), Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa (nonfiction), National Geographic Adventure Press (Washington, DC), 2002.
In the Shadows of the Morning: Essays on Wild Lands, Wild Waters, and a Few Untamed People, Lyons Press (Guilford, CT), 2002.
Acts of Faith (novel), Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
Ten Thousand Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and National Geographic Explorer.
SIDELIGHTS: Philip Caputo first appeared on the literary scene with his acclaimed Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War. A former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the Chicago Tribune, Caputo has drawn from his experiences as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam and a newspaper correspondent in Beirut and Saigon to record in direct, vivid prose horrific depictions of war and its devastating effects on the people who fought it and survived its ugliness. The ideas introduced in Rumor—the power of war to corrupt and dehumanize soldiers, the potential for evil that lies in all men's hearts, man's inhumanity to man, the senseless destruction of people and property—resurface in Caputo's later works and serve to unify his writings.
Hailed by New York Times Book Review critic Peter Andrews as "the finest memoir of men at arms in our generation," A Rumor of War chronicles Caputo's metamorphosis from an eager young Marine fresh from officer training school to a callous killer, and finally, to a soldier grown disgusted with the waste and folly of the war. Arriving in Danang convinced of a quick military victory for the United States, Caputo instead found Vietnam an unsettling and unforgiving place. "Everything rotted and corroded quickly over there: bodies, boot leather, canvas, metal, morals," he writes in A Rumor of War. "Scorched by the sun, wracked by the wind and rain of the monsoon, fighting in alien swamps and jungles, our humanity rubbed off of us as the protective blueing rubbed off the barrels of our rifles."
Patrols were unlike those the author had experienced during training. Unprepared for the rugged terrain, thick vegetation, and oppressive heat, Caputo soon tired of futile missions spent searching for an elusive enemy. The guerrilla tactics used by the Viet Cong terrified, exhausted, and overwhelmed even the best of soldiers. Yet the most traumatic of Caputo's Vietnam experiences came not in the battlefield but when he was investigated for an atrocity committed by soldiers under his command. Following Caputo's orders to search out and capture an enemy duo operating near their company, the soldiers instead shot two innocent South Vietnamese boys. Caputo recalls his feelings about the killings in A Rumor of War: "It was not only the specter of a murder charge that tormented me; it was my own sense of guilt. . . . Perhaps the war had awakened something evil in us, some dark, malicious power that allowed us to kill without feeling. Well, I could drop the 'perhaps' in my own case. Something evil had been in me that night. It was true that I had ordered the patrol to capture the two men if at all possible, but it was also true that I had wanted them dead." After a five-month investigation, one of the soldiers was acquitted of murder charges, and charges were dropped against Caputo and the other soldier.
In his review of A Rumor of War, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times called the book "singular and marvelous," one that "tells us, as no other book that I can think of has done, what it was actually like to be fighting in that hellish jungle." Theodore Solotaroff, writing in the New York Times Book Review, agreed that Caputo accurately captures the horrors of battle as felt by the foot soldier, also noting that the author places his involvement in a larger context, questioning the whole American effort in Vietnam. "For the ultimate effect of this book," Solotaroff wrote, "is to make the personal and public responsibility merge into a nightmare of horror and waste experienced humanly by the Caputos and inhumanly by the politicians and generals. Out of the force of his obsession with the war and his role in it, Caputo has revealed the broken idealism and suppressed agony of America's involvement."
Caputo draws upon his experiences in other war-ravaged lands for Means of Escape. Described by the author as an "imaginative autobiography . . . a marriage of memory and imagination," Means of Escape is Caputo's account of his adventures as a Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent whose assignments sent him to such places as Beirut, Afghanistan, Israel, South Vietnam, and Africa's Horn.
By Caputo's own admission, Means of Escape mixes fact with imagination, an admission that raises questions of accuracy and authenticity. Reviewing Means of Escape in Chicago's Tribune Books, Harrison E. Salisbury argued that Caputo "has taken the liberty of rearranging facts, thoughts and episodes to suit what he calls 'creative hindsight'. . . . The reader cannot help asking himself again and again: Did this really happen, or is this what Caputo imagines might have happened?" Morley Safer, writing in the New York Times Book Review, observed that "there are some good yarns to be told. . . . But whose voice is it? Is it the memoirist speaking or the character he has created?" Yet even those critics who questioned Caputo's approach admired his style. Salisbury, for example, described several passages as "pure Caputo, terse, rich in closely observed detail, sharply etched, ironic, tragic." Means of Escape wrote William Broyles Jr. in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "is far more than one man's journeys into the dark regions of our times; it is, through him, an American journey from abundance and promise, through defeat and disillusionment, to a kind of peace."
Caputo has also turned his talents to fiction, penning tales that refine and rework his notions about war. His first novel, Horn of Africa, is a story of political and personal corruption that draws from Caputo's experiences as a reporter covering the civil war in Ethiopia. The novel follows a trio of maladjusted soldiers-offortune as they attempt to deliver CIA-provided weapons to Moslem rebels in the desert wastelands of Africa's Horn. The team, comprised of American Vietnam veteran Charles Gage and ex-British officer Moody, and led by a brutish, obsessive, Nietszche-quoting warrior named Norstrand, meets with ruin in its efforts to carry out the ill-fated, poorly-designed plan.
Critics lauded Caputo's efforts as a first-time novelist. The New York Times Book Review's Peter Andrews called Horn of Africa "the genuine article: a real novel stuffed with excitement and filled with sharply drawn characters." Seconding that opinion, a critic in Publishers Weekly remarked, "This first novel is a brutally vibrant, arresting achievement." And writing in Library Journal, Robert H. Donahugh judged Caputo's Norstrand to be "one of the most fascinating characters in modern American fiction."
Continuing to examine what he sees as war's destructive yet hypnotic pull, Caputo set his second novel, DelCorso's Gallery, in Vietnam and Lebanon. The book recounts photojournalist Nicholas DelCorso's decision to leave his marriage and career and enter the world of modern warfare, a world he knew as a Vietnam combat soldier and "the only reality he truly understands," commented Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Elaine Kendall. Once returned to that reality, amid the despair of Saigon and the savagery of Beirut, DelCorso wars against his mentor and now chief rival, P. X. Dunlop. Their feud builds over opposing ideologies about war and conflicting views about their roles as war photographers. While Dunlop seeks to glorify combat through his battlefield photos, DelCorso's goal, writes Joe Klein in the New York Times Book Review, is to "show the public the true face of war. It has become an obsession with him . . . a crusade."
Kendall found the portrayals of both men to be accurate and telling, but she noted that the characters and their relationships only serve as a vehicle for the book's true purpose and source of strength—its ability to ask questions about war's existence and its attempts "to answer such urgent questions." Washington Post Book World reviewer Howard Chapnick agreed, and added that DelCorso's Gallery sheds light on "some of the philosophic questions of journalistic practice and the public's right to know." He concluded, "Caputo has written a tough, painful, and provocative book that will cause introspection in the journalistic community."
Caputo focused his attention on the plight of troubled Vietnam veterans for his third novel, Indian Country. The title has a dual meaning. On one level it refers to the book's setting, Ojibwa territory in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and on another to what Caputo describes in the novel as "a place, condition or circumstance that is alien and dangerous." An examination of the emotional and psychological deterioration of combat veteran Christian Starkman, Indian Country details Starkman's lapses into states of depression, isolation, and paranoia. Familiar surroundings take on "alien and dangerous" characteristics. Haunted by guilt over the death of his boyhood friend and combat partner Bonny George, a death he caused by an error in battlefield judgment, Starkman "implodes into delayed disintegration," according to Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Dick Roraback. His character retreats further and further from reality until an old Ojibwa medicine man, the grandfather of Bonny George, offers him a chance for redemption and healing.
Critics agreed that the idea of healing is central to Caputo's narrative, and they praised Indian Country for its powerful conclusion. "Caputo . . . grabs the threads he has scattered about . . . and wraps up the whole story magnificently, concluding on a message of hope," wrote Washington Post Book World reviewer John Byrne Cooke. Roraback summarized the work as "a story of forgiveness, ostensibly the forgiveness of Starkman by Bonny George's grandfather; in reality, the forgiveness that must come from within." New York Times Book Review contributor Frank Conroy found that the work successfully illustrates the pain felt by many Vietnam veterans. He stated that "Indian Country is a fine traditional novel that handles a difficult theme both cleverly and artfully . . . it has real strength."
In Equation for Evil, the author focuses on a different type of war—the war waged against society by terrorists. After a white supremacist gunman named Duane Boggs murders a busload of fourteen Asian-American children before turning his gun upon himself, California-based police detective Gabriel Chin and psychiatrist Leander Heartwood must attempt to enter the consciousness of the dead killer in order to track down Boggs's accomplice. Equation for Evil "stakes out new territory," according to Chicago's Tribune Books contributor James McManus, "but it is also a book in which the legacy of the war in Southeast Asia casts a grim shadow over America well into the 1990s. It forcefully portrays Cambodian refugees, many of whom have survived both the Khmer Rouge and coffin ships crossing the Pacific only to see their children and grandchildren killing each other in gang wars or becoming the targets of racial animosity in California's San Joaquin Valley." While the investigation of Boggs's terrorist act proves an engrossing read in its own right, it also "provides Caputo with the opportunity to paint a very clear and lucid picture of the horrors we have come to in this country, the rampant ethnic hatreds and the avalanche of vulgarity and cruelty that overwhelms our daily lives," wrote Washington Post Book Review contributor Richard Bausch. "Caputo takes on most of the hot-button issues of our time—racism, random violence, disempowerment, the decay of the social fabric, even the nature of evil itself—and, I am happy to report, more than lives to tell the tale," observed Roger L. Simon, reviewing Equation for Evil in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Caputo has returned to war in its many forms time and time again, in his life and in his works. Reflecting on this truth, Broyles noted that Caputo's life bears "a striking parallel to our own national experience . . . [Caputo] goes to Vietnam as a patriot, returns disillusioned and in disgrace. An exile in his own land, he wanders the world looking for redemption, seeks in vain to find his place in the Old Country of his ancestors, is held helpless hostage, peers into other hearts darker than his own, confronts his own mortality and limits, then finally finds a kind of peace." It is this journey that has shaped Caputo's life and through which he has found the substance and the forcefulness that mark his works.
Exiles: Three Short Novels was reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle by Brian St. Pierre, who called it "an urgent, eloquent, and unsettling collection." "Paradise" is set on an island off Australia where American Vietnam veteran David MacKenzie deals with his demons while teaching the natives how to manage their microeconomy. His life and his marriage are threatened when another vet, and the survivor of a shipwreck, comes ashore. "The Forest of the Laughing Elephant" is set in Vietnam during the conflict and follows the chase of a tiger by a squad of soldiers, one of whom has been carried off by the animal. They are led by Lincoln Coombes, a troubled man who saw the attack and must kill the tiger to free himself of guilt.
The third short novel, "Standing In" is set in suburban Connecticut. Dante Panetta, a young, working-class Italian, meets a wealthy older woman on a train. She remarks on his resemblance to her son, a Navy pilot who was killed during the Gulf War, and ultimately she and her husband replace their lost child with Dante by polishing his social skills, outfitting him in the dead son's clothes, and finding him a position of importance and influence. St. Pierre noted that Coombes and MacKenzie "are already damaged when we meet them, living proof that exile can be a state of mind out on the edge of normality, while Dante, a young man, is still unformed. . . . Caputo spares his characters little, and his narrative is as trenchant as it is compelling. As with most moralists, he sometimes tells us things we'd rather not hear, especially about our need for illusions, but the discomfort is salutary after all."
In reviewing The Voyage in the New York Times Book Review, Andrea Barrett wrote that "the spirit of Joseph Conrad, evoked explicitly in this novel's epigraph and implicitly in everything from the central characters to a horror-struck description of death met under 'the sun's indifferent eye,' haunts Caputo's adventure-filled sea story. Like Lord Jim, The Voyage is a tale filtered through several layers of tellers."
The story of sixteen-year-old Nathaniel Braithwaite and his two younger brothers, Drew and Eliot, sons of Cyrus, is told by Sybil, Cyrus's great-granddaughter, who is investigating her family's past and why Cyrus sent his sons off alone on the family schooner on a dangerous sea adventure that took them from Maine to Florida. A Publishers Weekly contributor felt that a gothic subplot "adds ballast on a vessel already laden with a heavy cargo of Original Sin, inherited character flaws, parents who destroy their children, and the decline of America's 'barons of Mercantile aristocracy,' whose guilty secrets haunt them down the generations."
Caputo's Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa focuses on the legendary lions of the Tsavo National Park in what is now Kenya, that in 1898 killed and ate 135 men, most of them railroad workers. The lions, which did not have the usual mane and which exceeded 500 pounds each, were hunted down and killed. The same strain of lion killed six Zambians over two months in 1991, and the ensuing hunt resulted in the killing of the largest lion ever recorded, at ten feet, six inches long and 550 pounds. Caputo took two related trips to Africa, one on a photographic safari, and another with a group of scientists who were trying to determine if the lions should be recognized as a subspecies.
In the Shadows of the Morning: Essays on Wild Lands, Wild Waters, and a Few Untamed People, is a collection that reflects Caputo's experiences in such diverse places as Vietnam, Beirut, Africa, and the North American continent. Library Journal's Linda M. Kaufmann wrote that Caputo "can make the reader shiver with the anticipation of danger in the wild and yet appreciate the need to experience it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Beidler, Philip D., American Literature & the Experience of Vietnam, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1982.
Beidler, Philip D., Rewriting America, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1991.
Caputo, Philip, A Rumor of War, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1977, published as A Rumor of War: With a Twentieth Anniversary Postscript by the Author, 1996.
Caputo, Philip, Means of Escape: An Imagined Memoir, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
Hellman, John, American Myth & the Legacy of Vietnam, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Meyers, Thomas, Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1988.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 21, 1999, David Kirby, review of The Voyage, p. K14.
Booklist, December 15, 1995, Brad Hooper, review of Equation for Evil, p. 667; April 15, 1997, Brad Hooper, review of Exiles: Three Short Novels, p. 1364; September 1, 1999, Brad Hooper, review of The Voyage, p. 7; May 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa, p. 1442.
Boys' Life, October, 2002, Rich Haddaway, review of Ghosts of Tsavo, p. 14.
Library Journal, December 15, 1980; June 1, 1997, David W. Henderson, review of Exiles, p. 153; September 15, 1999, David W. Henderson, review of The Voyage, p. 110; June 15, 2002, Wilda Williams, review of Ghosts of Tsavo, p. 91; September 1, 2002, Linda M. Kaufman, review of In the Shadows of the Morning: Essays on Wild Lands, Wild Waters, and a Few Untamed People, p. 200.
Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2002, John Balzar, review of Ghosts of Tsavo, p. R11.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 23, 1983; June 21, 1987; October 27, 1991; March 10, 1996, p. 1.
Newsweek, June 6, 1977.
New York Times, May 26, 1977; May 29, 1977; July 24, 2002, Richard Bernstein, review of Ghosts of Tsavo, p. E8.
New York Times Book Review, May 29, 1977; November 2, 1980; May 17, 1983; November 13, 1983; October 27, 1991; May 26, 1996, K. Thomas MacFarlane, review of Equation for Evil, p. 15; August 10, 1997, p. 11; November 7, 1999, Andrea Barrett, review of The Voyage, p. 32; October 6, 2002, Tyler D. Johnson, review of Ghosts of Tsavo, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, August 22, 1980; December 4, 1995, review of Equation for Evil, January 29, 1996, Robert Dahlin, "Philip Caputo: facing evil Vietnam to suburbia" (interview), p. 80; April 28, 1997, review of Exiles, p. 47; September 6, 1999, review of The Voyage, p. 78; May 20, 2002, Matthew Nelson, "PW talks with Philip Caputo" (interview), p. 58.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 1997, Brian St. Pierre, review of Exiles, p. 3.
Saturday Review, June 11, 1977.
Time, July 4, 1977.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 3, 1991; March 31, 1996, p. 5.
Washington Post, June 12, 1977. Washington Post Book World, October 23, 1986; May 10, 1987; March 17, 1996, p. 3.
CNN.com,http://www.cnn.com/ (August 2, 2004), interview with Philip Caputo.*