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
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.
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
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.
In the 35 year period in which he has made 17 films (among which are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus 7, Men With Guns) MacArthur grant-winning director John Sayles has also published seven books, including the National Book Award-nominated Union Dues and two full-bodied novels, Los Gusanos and, most recently, A Moment in the Sun. And yet, as he mentions in the conversation that follows, he has never received one note or letter from anyone who has read any of his books — a correction the cross-country reading tour (in a rented Prius) Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi embarked on, will no doubt make.
A Moment in the Sun, in nearly 1,000 pages, delves into a sketchily acknowledged period of American history — the rise of Jim Crow, effectively thwarting Reconstruction in the South, the road to the Cuban Spanish-American War, American imperialism running rampant in the Philippines, and the greed-fed Yukon gold rush. As it happens, the American involvement in the misnamed Philippine insurrection also serves as the setting for Sayles latest film, Amigo.
This, my second chat with John Sayles (we last met in 1995 for his Cuban exile novel, Los Gusanos), turned out to be a lengthy conversation touching on his new opus, his new film, the perils of independent film making, and any number of asides and anecdotes from a full and storied creative life.
Robert Birnbaum: Its International Free Press Day — in case things like that matter to you. I haven’t seen any reviews of your new opus. Maybe because it is too long for reviewers?
John Sayles: There have only been the publishing trade magazines, Kirkus and those. One of them called it a cat-squasher of a book.
RB: How imaginative. I saw an article on the fact that you are visiting every state including Alaska.
JS: Just about, yeah.
RB: Is that fun?
JS: Yeah, I like reading. The book is long enough so I am reading a different chapter every night so I don’t get bored with it. One thing that is nice is that it is almost all independent bookstores.
RB: The chains seem to be going out of business (laughs). Who would have thought it?
JS: Also the chain stores don’t do readings in the mall that often. I have written three novels before this and a couple of short story collections and to this day I have never gotten a letter from someone who has read one of my books. I run into people who have seen my movies all the time. Most people don’t know I write books.
RB: Didn’t you win a National Book Award or something?
JS: That didn’t change anything. I was nominated.
JS: A short story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood. But that was about five years ago or so. Nation Books published it — they hadn’t done fiction before so it was pretty new to them. Doing readings is kind of like theater, where you are looking at your audience. Which is nice for a book, to actually see somebody who is going to read the book or at least buy it.
RB: Unlike most book tours, which is one sealed tube after another — you are out among the people.
JS: We like driving across the country.
RB: Are you rejiggering your budget now that gas prices are soaring?
JS: No, but we are renting a Prius. I am almost too big for a Prius but it’s OK. Mexico is just about out of oil — which will be good for the pollution in Mexico City.
RB: The week I was there it must have been really unusual because it was not bad at all.
JS: They have a few good days, but the rest of the time it’s like breathing bus exhaust.
RB: I’ve lost track of Mexican politics — did they just have an election?
JS: They are about to have a big one. What’s happening is that the narcos have a bigger army than the government.
RB: That stuff is ripe for fiction — lots of books are coming out of the borderland. My favorite is