A laconic New York-born writer, Don Winslow is regarded as one of the best in the field. His sprawling, visceral drug-crime novel, The Power of the Dog, rivalled the grand master of that genre, Robert Stone. Opinion has divided over his recent books, set in California’s surfer territory. In them, Winslow has tried (and sometimes succeeded) to suggest that this laid-back community is in possession of more than a single brain cell. But have his admirers’ pleas for a return to the massive reach of The Power of the Dog influenced his latest novel, Savages? Violent drug-dealing conflict is back, but now shot through with the mordant humour of his recent surfing novels. The result is quite splendid.

Despite Ben’s apparent environmental concerns, he is more than ready to handle big-time marijuana deals with his ex-mercenary friend, Chon, in Laguna Beach. Chon is the muscle, securing their territory against incursions. They share a girlfriend, an Orange County beauty called Ophelia.

Needless to say, everything turns sour. A video arrives, with shots of severed heads suggesting there will be bloody consequences when the Baja cartel moves in. Ophelia is snatched, and Ben and Chon are instructed to hand over the business. It’s obvious that they don’t stand a chance against such a ruthless nemesis. But guess whether or not they decide to try?

Winslow is not concerned with keeping his readers in a comfortable place, and the challenges begin as he makes us complicit with his less-than-admirable dope-dealing anti-heroes. The badinage of the beleaguered protagonists – one a laid-back save-the-planet type, the other a tough ex-SEAL (between them, a ragbag of SoCal attitudes) – is wonderfully funny. There are also acidic socio-political commentaries on American society, and some nifty wordplay. Winslow has few equals in the latter area.

Film studios are snapping at the author’s heels. Robert De Niro has optioned The Winter of Frankie Machine, and Oliver Stone has announced that he will be filming Savages. Stone, whose style as a director is like a blow to the solar plexus, has never been noted for nuance; Don Winslow, however, is a writer for whom nuance and multiple levels are articles of faith. It’s to be hoped that he stands behind Oliver Stone – perhaps with a revolver, as Werner Herzog did when filming with Klaus Kinski.

More in The Independent

Ben is a philanthropist, and his buddy Chon is a mercenary. Together they are purveyors of the finest weed in Laguna Beach, and with their mutual squeeze Ophelia they are enjoying the best laid-back life sunny California can offer. But their business is not, at heart, laid back, and when the Mexican Baja Cartel decides they need to diversify into businesses north of the border, they make Ben and Chon an offer they can’t refuse. Only they do.

After his drug war tour-de-force The Hour of the Dog, Winslow down-shifted and published two novels about the surfer private detective Boone Daniels. Those books are funny, sharp looks at the California Dream a marked contrast from their predecessor, which was comprehensive, violent, dark, and almost manic in its pace, which helped it in covering such vast scopes of greed, politics, and government corruption, in the US and in Mexico.

With Savages it’s as if Winslow has decided to merge those two strands into one, reminding us that Ben may come off as a laid-back Boone Daniels-type, but his business is a violent one, which is part of the reason Chon is around, and the story of Savages is really the story of the reality of their work catching up to them.

What makes it work is the way Winslow writes it. The depths hidden beneath the above synopsis are belied by the book’s very Californian style narrative and half-stoned tone. It is immensely funny at times, not least in the constant duel between Ophelia and her mom, whom she calls PAQU (for Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe), which in its way stands for the sort of live our heroes are trying to avoid. But many books have been written, and many films have been made, about the dark side of the Dream where America melts into the sea, and few of them have done what Winslow has done, presenting the darkness as an integral part of the light, the happy life-style, mellow yin and violent yang, which Ben and Chon reflect, indeed parallel in their own existence.

If you’re looking for a comparison with current crime writing, you won’t really find one here. I’d liken it to two novels from a previous generation, both of which were made into seriously underrated neo-noir; Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and, particularly in the baroque Jules et Jim aspects, Cutter And Bone by Newton Thornburg (Larry McMurtry’s excellent Leaving Cheyenne sprang to mind too). The seeming casualness of the prose, and the seeming precision of the plot, leave the reader unprepared for the starkness of the denouement, which does on a micro level what Hour Of The Dog did on the macro. Instead of the manic drive which he needed to cover the scope of that book, full of corruption at the highest levels, here he brings the drug business into sharp personal and local focus. It’s not didactic, but it makes the point clearly.

Pulling off the challenge of writing a deadly serious novel with a satiric and ironic comic tone is a huge accomplishment, but I believe Winslow has done this before. In fact, for all the comparisons with excellent work I’ve mentioned, I’m inclined to see this not only as a melding of his last three books, but as a bookend to his magificent 1950s Manhattan period piece, Isle Of Joy…a book that catches the spirit of a time, uplifting and depressing as that may be. Winslow may well be the most versatile and interesting crime writer out there right now.

Savages by Don Winslow

William Heinemann £12.99 ISBN 9780434020829

Michael Carlson

This review originally appeared at Michael Carlson’s blog Irresistible Targets, http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This