A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne

December 21, 2019 | 8 books mentioned 3 min read

How is it that Don Winslow is not a household name?

I’ve spent the last few years plowing through the Winslow oeuvre, including his masterly Cartel Trilogy, and wondering why I still get blank looks when I mention his name. Yes, he occasionally gets a rapturous review, and, yes, his books sell. But how can it be that, as I write this, Lee Child’s umpteenth Jack Reacher novel and John Grisham’s latest lawyer tome are numbers one and two on the New York Times Bestsellers list for hardcover fiction while Winslow’s The Border isn’t even among the top 15? How can it be that, 20 years into Peak TV, we still don’t have any cable series based on Winslow’s relentlessly telegenic books?

I have no answers to these questions. I just think America’s readers need to step up their game.

covercovercovercovercovercovercovercoverCrime writers, the good ones, anyway, are the poor man’s social historians. Open a Richard Price novel like Clockers and you learn the brutal mechanics of the drug trade in a gang-ridden urban housing project. Read Tana French and you see how the politics of social class roil just below the surface in the quaint neighborhoods of Dublin.

What sets Winslow apart is both the depth of his social insight and his versatility. Like the criminals they write about, most crime writers stick close to home. French writes only about Dublin and environs. Price’s books rarely leave New York and northern New Jersey. Winslow’s 18 novels range from surfer-dude Southern California (Savages and The Kings of Cool) to gritty New York (The Force), to the Mexican drug war (The Cartel Trilogy: The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border). He’s even set a few novels in Asia (The Trail to Buddha’s Mirror and Satori).

This would seem only a writerly parlor trick if it weren’t for the fact that each time Winslow drops into one of these wildly different worlds, you feel like he must have lived there his entire life soaking up social detail. Savages, the first Winslow book I read, exudes SoCal cool. The prose itself seems stoned, blissed out on some primo couch-lock weed that leaves you feeling both transcendently chill and hyper-aware. But then The Force captures world-weary New York, a cop-centric world of dishwater coffee and 4 a.m. cigarettes with a junkie informant jonesing for a fix.

Savages and The Force are first-rate crime fiction, smart, well-written, and compulsively readable, but they don’t really transcend the form. They’re merely good. But with the Cartel Trilogy, a ripped-from-the-headlines fictional retelling of the drug war in Mexico and the United States, Winslow holds a mirror to contemporary North and Central American society in the same way Dickens and Balzac did for their societies. He tells a story of ourselves and our age that we all know in our hearts but would rather not have to hear spoken aloud.

The trilogy focuses on DEA agent Art Keller and his Ahab-like obsession with stomping out the Mexican drug trade, especially cartel kingpin Adán Barrera, a ferociously violent philosopher-villain based loosely on real-life drug lord Benjamín Arellano Félix. But if Keller’s pursuit of Barrera and his fellow cartel leaders forms the narrative spine of the three long, twisty, blood-soaked books, what sets them apart as fiction is Winslow’s reckoning of the human cost of a long, senseless war waged in order to get Americans high.

The sheer body count of the three novels is staggering. Children are thrown off bridges. Civilians are slaughtered in drive-by shootings. Cops and informers are tortured to death in any number of gruesome and inventive ways. But Winslow also spends long passages in The Cartel, the trilogy’s second book, following a band of courageous Mexican journalists and a small-town mayor trying to take back their town from the murderous cartels. In the most recent installment, The Border, published earlier this year, Winslow follows a young boy’s intercontinental journey to escape poverty and a sadistic gang enforcer in Guatemala, only to find himself years later poor and enmeshed in gang life on the streets of New York. The violence in these books is relentless and stomach-turning, but it’s never mindless or gratuitous. This is a war, Winslow is saying, and this is what war looks like.

I just wish more of my fellow Americans were willing to look.

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is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022