A Border Patrol vehicle drives in front of a mural in Tecate, Mexico, just beyond a border structure in Tecate, Calif.

A Border Patrol vehicle drives in front of a mural in Tecate, Mexico, just beyond a border structure in Tecate, Calif.

I remember first hearing Francisco Cantú’s story sometime last year, spooling out from my car speakers as I wound through mountain curves many hundreds of miles from the border he writes about. He was telling a story of his time in the Border Patrol, a job he took after college to understand better the boundaries he’d studied in school.

On Cantú’s border, interior landscapes are as tangible as exterior ones.

The story he read was compelling, full of the intensity and rough edges one would expect – but its intensity wasn’t what compelled, not once the small shocks that peppered Cantú’s telling became, in this context, familiar. What set this story apart was the beauty woven through it: not gentle, exactly, but graceful in a way that kneaded the narrative into rich dimensionality.

As we drove south along the open highway, I tuned into a Mexican radio station and we listened to the sounds of norteño as he finished his meal. After he finished eating, he sat silently next to me, watching the passing desert.

Then, quietly, as if whispering to me or to someone else, he began to speak of the rains in Guerrero, of the wet and green jungle, and I wondered if he could have ever been made to imagine a place like this. A place where one of his companions would meet his death and another would be made to forget his own name. A landscape where the earth still seethed with volcanic heat.

Cantú’s book about the job that continues to haunt him, “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border,” comes out next week. In three parts, he describes his start in the Border Patrol as an idealistic newcomer; his increasing success in his role and the increasing doubts that accompany it; and his life after leaving, as he tries to help a friend caught in the system he knows so well. Throughout, slices of history and the author’s own life fill in context, highlighting by turns the futility, absurdity and uniqueness of his stories. Near the end of the book’s second section, as the stress of the job takes shape in Cantú’s grinding molars and violent dreams, he quotes historian Timothy Snyder: “It is for us as scholars… to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.”

The book is full of questions both asked and implied: Where is the boundary between learning about something and becoming it? Where is the line between “unbelievable” and believed? And, as a storyteller, what does it mean to seek – and find – beauty in a reality that’s also so full of pain?

Some might argue that the latter question is why writers write at all: to let attention, insight and, yes, beauty be the guides to meaning, rather than tragedy. Cantú’s memoir offers itself as evidence, collecting traumas and peering at their cross-sections in an attempt to understand a frontier that often feels surreal.

As I drove down the dirt road back toward the base, I looked at the woman in the rearview mirror through the mesh of the metal cage that separated us. I tried to think of something to say but found myself unable to speak. Is it all right if I roll down the windows? I finally asked. Lo que quiere usted, oficial. I rolled the windows down and turned to look at the woman. Me puedes tutear, I told her.

Cool air blew in from outside and I gazed beyond the road at the dust devils creeping across the warmly lit valley, a myriad of clay-colored cones whirling in the distance. For a short time, driving down the open road, I felt a strange and familiar sense of freedom, an old closeness with the desert. Perhaps there was something comforting, I thought, about being able to look out across the landscape and see for myself the horrors laid upon it. I looked again through the mesh to the woman seated behind me. She stared out the open window, her hair whipping at her sun-wrinkled face. I wondered what she might have seen, what she might feel looking out at the desert, and I was certain it was no sense of freedom.

The story emerges in precise snapshots, but Cantú’s stretchy, lyrical prose gives the sense that the narrator is feeling his own way through the story even as he spins it. It’s easy to imagine the character of Cantú composing wholly formed paragraphs on night patrols; the reflective, measured version of him that tells the story is far more present than the one whose boots stride purposefully over sandy earth in the darkness.

As I cut for sign along the border road, I watched a Sonoran coachwhip snake try to find its way into Mexico through the pedestrian fence. The animal slithered along the length of the mesh looking for a way south, hitting its head against the rusted metal gate again and again until finally I guided it over to the wide opening of a wash grate. After the snake had made its way across the adjacent road, I stood for a while looking through the mesh, staring at the undulating tracks left in the dirt.

On Cantú’s border, interior landscapes are as tangible as exterior ones, one of many contradictions that emerge from the text. The loveliness of descriptive prose – “a once mighty river basin ringed by arid and stony peaks, seething and glimmering” – crashes into the ugliness of language that dismisses and distances. In story after story, help for stranded migrants also means entrapment; agents’ mercy is at times inseparable from either the cruelty or the mundanity of duty.

Francisco Cantú

Francisco Cantú

These contradictions are too complex to be called opposites, and Cantú’s writing does not lend itself to easy simplification. Instead, the contradictions remain at awkward angles to one another, humming with discord that shades the story with surreality.

In the last third of the book, some of the dreaminess gives way to clarity as certain familiar – even commonplace – narratives of migration become painfully singular, as in a foreshadowing conversation with the author’s friend.

José looked up at me. When you were on the border, he asked, did you ever find drugs? Sure, I told him. More than you can imagine. He nodded slowly, his eyes unblinking. Did you ever arrest a narco? Sure, I said. But not like El Chapo. José listened intently. We mostly arrested the little people—smugglers, scouts, mules, coyotes. I watched as a knowing look spread across his face. His eyes met mine and held them until I turned to look away. But mostly I arrested migrants, I confessed. People looking for a better life.

As the realities of the border creep closer even after the author’s departure from the border patrol, he’s forced to reckon with his role in it.

“You weren’t just observing a reality, you were participating in it,” his mother tells him at one point – an obvious but jarring reminder about the flimsy line between the two. The most powerful pages in the book make this point by removing the artifice and showing the undiluted words of family members caught on opposite sides of an imperfectly permeable barrier:

I miss my dad so much it’s really hard to express and write. I miss you so much dad. You always told us to never look back and always look forward thanks for always being there for us and never letting us go dad. We miss you so much.

The book ends with no answers to its big questions. In some ways, it feels like a rejection of the questions altogether. Instead of seeking meaning in the constructed, patrolled, deliberate border or its defenders, Cantú seeks solace in what it used to be: a meandering, muddy river as fickle in its outlines as nature can be. On the built border, it’s clear that crossings will continue to be dangerous, difficult and inevitable. But in a remote and silty stretch of the Rio Grande, Cantú appears to remember and remind that the land on which it’s drawn, so cruelly indifferent to those stopped by its inhospitable terrain, is just as indifferent to the lines imposed upon it.

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