Savages: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne

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.

Crime 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.

Tuesday New Release Day: Eggers, Russo, Heti, Frayn, Winslow, Henkin, Brunt, Maraniss

Dave Eggers’ latest, A Hologram for the King, is out today. Also out this week is an under-the-radar, new effort from Richard Russo, Interventions, a collection that’s a collaboration with his artist daughter Kate Russo. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is out (Don’t miss our illuminating interview). And Michael Frayn has a new novel, Skios. More new fiction: Don Winslow’s The Kings of Cool (a prequel to Savages), Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You, and Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home. In non-fiction, There’s David Maraniss’ Barack Obama: The Story.

Staff Pick: Two Crime Novels

I’ve been thinking lately that I should be reading more crime fiction. I’ve never been against it—in theory I’m in favor of anything good, regardless of genre, although I’ve never taken to werewolves—but I haven’t actively sought it out.

But since my second novel keeps getting categorized as crime fiction, my illiteracy in the genre that I’ve apparently been shoehorned into has become slightly uncomfortable. “What kind of a book have you written?” people ask.

“Um,” I say, “I guess it’s a sort of literary crime novel?” (I know. Awkward. But if you set out to write literary fiction and end up getting reviewed in Spinetingler Magazine, what are you supposed to call it?)

“Oh!” they say. “Have you read [insert name of high-profile crime writer whom I haven’t read but obviously should have if I’m claiming any sort of association with the genre]?”

The most recent books I’ve read in the genre confirm my long-held suspicion that attempting to categorize books by genre does readers a disservice; these books are no less literary than any of the other great books I’ve read this year, they just have crimes and/or guns in them. For your reading pleasure, two books you might consider reading even if you don’t think you like crime fiction very much:

1.
Savages by Don Winslow: I think this book is perhaps best described as a Tarantino film crossed with a prose poem. It’s violent, beautifully written, and experimental, and I’ve never read anything like it. Structurally, it’s a dizzyingly intricate 290 chapters, the first one only two words long (1. “Fuck you.”)

Ben is a brilliant botanist who’s partnered up with his best friend, Chon, to produce and distribute the best pot on the West Coast. Chon, a former Navy SEAL who brought unspeakably high-quality marijuana seeds back from Afghanistan, has a girlfriend named O, but she sleeps with Ben too. Everyone’s in their twenties. The trio lead lives of hedonistic ease in Laguna Beach, until a vicious Mexican cartel arrives on the scene to stage a hostile takeover of the business.

The shifts in perspective are interesting; Winslow shifts back and forth within his central trio and then moves outward, until we’re reading short chapters from the viewpoint of practically every thug who populates the pages. The effect is fragmented, but effective. What I found most startling about this book was Winslow’s willingness to abandon conventional form and slip without warning in and out of a sort of loose poetry—

Slicing through SoCal
Cutting through a California night
The freeway (5) is soft and warm and
Welcoming
But for Ben
The green exit signs are like steps climbing up a scaffold
Toward O.

The cartel kidnaps O to speed up the takeover negotiations. The body count is considerable. The book’s practically impossible to put down.

2.
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller: Snowdrops is as quiet as Savages is loud. The book opens with the early-spring discovery of a body; a snowdrop, in Moscow slang, a corpse hidden all winter under heavy snows. It appears with the first thaw in front of Nick Platt’s apartment building.

It’s apparent from the first pages that a complicated crime is being played out, something slow and deadly unfolding over weeks and months; evidence of it is all around us even as we can’t see how the pieces fit together—until, of course, the trap snaps shut in the final chapters and the significance of the body in the first chapter falls devastatingly into place.

Nick Platt is a British lawyer who lives and works in Moscow in the early 2000s. One day in the Metro he meets a young woman, Masha, and quickly falls in love. His narration takes the loose form of a confession to his soon-to-be-bride, years later—“You’ve wanted to know why I haven’t talked to you about Russia”—although the deeper he goes into the story, the less certain the wedding seems.

Masha asks for his assistance in helping her aunt, Tatiana, move to a new apartment. The real story here isn’t the crime; it’s the extent to which we’re willing to lie to ourselves, to ignore the obvious, in pursuit of happiness or companionship or love. A lonely man in a foreign city, courted suddenly by a beautiful young girl, is willing to suspend disbelief even when her story begins to crumble and lies start showing through, even when he’s half-aware at every turn that he’s complicit in something dreadful and that everything is wrong. An intriguing debut, suffused with an atmosphere of dread.

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