Sunday 19 July 2015

Savages by Don Winslow

Readers of a certain age may want to respond to the name Don Winslow with the words "Of the Navy". Well, this is a very different Don Winslow, a new American crime novelist who is making waves (no nautical pun intended). I'd been reading about him, and then I saw Oliver Stone's — flawed but impressive — movie of Savages. 

What really got me interested, though, was reading a novella entitled Extreme by Winslow which was serialised in a magazine (all right, it was Playboy). It was very impressive. Terse, enthralling, blackly humorous. And I didn't even mind Winslow's trademark minimalist style in which a paragraph — or page, or chapter — can consist of a single sentence. Or even a single word. 

Normally that sort of thing drives me nuts. I seem to recall James Ellroy's Cold Six Thousand was written in a similar manner and I found it too distracting to read (and I like Ellroy). 

But somehow Winslow pulls it off. (On the back cover Stephen King says, "Winslow's stripped-down prose is a revelation." And he's not wrong.)

So, when I saw a copy of the original novel of Savages in a shop (okay, it was Pound Land), I jumped at the chance to read it. And it really delivered the goods. It's the tale of a trio of California hipsters (two guys, called Ben and Chon, and their shared girlfriend O — for Ophelia) who move into the marijuana business big time and fall foul of the Mexican cartels. (The characters are notably convincing and well motivated throughout.) Winslow tells this story in a manner which is both briskly sardonic and utterly terrifying.

Here is a video calling card sent by a cartel to show what happens to people who don't cooperate: "the trunks of the decapitated bodies hang neatly from hooks, as if the heads had placed them in a locker room before going to work." So our heroes "can take De Deal or De Capitation."

Winslow's prose is marvellously compact and darkly comic. When O's mother is poised to report her daugher missing, Ben and Chon fear she's about to "go milk carton." And the female head of the Baja Cartel is impertinently referred to by O as "the Pink Power Ranger." 
The dialogue, too, is first rate. Afer Chon is wounded he's about to be injected with pain killers by a shady physician. Chon asks for a beer. "Morphine and beer?" says Ben. "It's not just for breakfast any more," chirps the doctor.

(The story includes a fascinating account of how the US government actively encouraged the opium poppy growers in the mountainous Sinaloa region of western Mexico during World War Two — the opium was essential for making morphine, needed in massive quantities for wounded troops. And how this came back to bite them in the ass after the war.) 

There is also Thomas McGuane-tinged social commentary here: "Republicans — they cry on TV these days like a twelve year old girl who didn't get invited to a birthday party."

And the book presents a witty, deeply jaundiced view of the world: "Whatever happened to morality?" asks Ben. "Same thing that happened to CDs," says Chon.

It also has, for a crime thriller, something startlingly profound to say about the depersonalisation caused by violence — "It's all fun and games until someone loses an I."

A great book. There's some sloppy editing, though: throughout the novel confusion reigns over whether its five or seven decapitated dope dealers the cartel made an example of. 

It also sees the triumph of the abbreviation and the acronym — DW is aware of this, and amusing about it. Yet it's still a little annoying at the big climax for the reader to have to pause and decode "AR" into assault rifle. 

But I have to have something to complain about... Don't mind me. This is a dark classic of a crime thriller told in a distinctive voice and I am keenly looking forward to the next book I read by Don Winslow.

(Image credits: The covers — a handsome bunch — are all from our good friends at Good Reads. The Don Winslow of the Navy lobby card is from the blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.)

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