Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Savages by Don Winslow

Savages by Don Winslow, 2010

Lado and Hector take them to a big date farm out near Indio and put them in a shed where they keep tractors and shit. The two sit on the dirt floor leaning against the corrugated-tin wall and they develop verbal diarrhea. Keep shitting on and on about how there were two of them, a shotgun and two pistols, real pros. . .

Lado already knows they were pros-- they knew when, where, and what, and they knew to look for the GPS.

"Two of them? You sure?" Lado asks.

They're really sure.

Two tall guys.

Lado thinks that's interesting.

Wearing masks.

"What kind of masks?"

Yanqui television hosts.

Jay Leno and. . .

"Letterman," the driver says.

The other one got the car make and license plate.

"It's a wonder," Lado says, "that neither of you two got hurt at all."

Very fortunate, they agree.

Yeah, well, that ain't gonna last. ---- (page 182)

Savages is a wickedly twisted and brilliant piece of crime fiction, and a sick little experiment on readers to boot. I love amorality and antiheroes, novels where good and evil are varying shades of gray. To say that Savages' morality is gray is to a massive understatement. I'm not sure I've ever read another book where every single main character is, to some extent, a villain, or at least someone who has made terrible choices. Winslow's style can only be described as unique and his plotting is brutal, intricate and complex. Here's a book that you have to chew on for a while before you can decide how you feel about it.

The protagonists (not heroes, but protagonists) of the novel are Ben and Chon, best buddies who run a massive marijuana ring in southern California. Their aim--well, Ben's aim, really--is to run the most peaceful operation they can. When a powerful Mexican cartel looking to expand its business instigates a hostile takeover of their business, Ben and Chon are faced with a choice: give up or wage war against a far larger and more powerful enemy.

The plot quickly becomes much more twisted than that, as both sides begin a riveting game of chicken in order to feel the other out. Dirty tactics, power plays and some highly spirited negotiations ensue. Winslow gives every character dimension and complexity, from the brutal head of the Baja Cartel to a corrupt and pathetic DEA agent. As hard as it is at first to root for a band of marijuana dealers, Ben and Chon are hard not to empathize with, even as they are forced to be more and more ruthless and cruel. O, their shared girlfriend and a pot-smoking hipster, is likewise both difficult to like and difficult not to like. Winslow is damn good at that--forcing you to understand or even admire some truly bad people. Grey morality is the name of the game in Savages.

Winslow's prose is bizarre: a hybrid of gonzo poeticism, clipped Elmore Leonard-style dialogue and terse, action-movie bursts of violence and action. Some chapters are only a word or two long (seriously), and some are in script format. And the amazing thing is, it works. Sure, there are a couple of times that Winslow goes too far into stylized nonsense and comes off as pretentious, but for the most part the story and the style complement each other perfectly. Winslow can be a damn funny writer, too; his humor is as dark and sharp as the rest of the story.

The climax, when it comes, is moving, riveting and oddly graceful. The biggest plot twist is completely terrific-- surprising, but obvious in retrospect. By the end, Winslow has elevated the novel into a surprisingly affecting tragedy. Ben, Chon and O are not heroes by any means, but they were people looking for some modicum of peace in a savage world.

NEXT UP: Plenty of new reviews coming, starting with a brand-new Jeeves novel.

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