Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crime Fiction: Savages by Don Winslow

(Editor’s note: Today we welcome to January Magazine a new book reviewer: New York City resident Brendan M. Leonard, who, since 2004, has written about television and film for Web sites such as CHUD.com. He was also the creator of New York Noir, a short-lived podcast anthology series.)

Jesus Christ, this book.

Pretty much my thoughts about Savages
these days.

Fans of Don Winslow, the author of Savages (Simon & Schuster), have been waiting on his breakout novel for a while. His last work, The Dawn Patrol (2008), with its effortless cool, laid-back style, and characters tailor-made for Hollywood, felt like it was going to be “the one.” Not so much -- Dawn Patrol became yet another book for those in the Winslow cult to give as presents, while waiting for the next one, the big one. The book that arrives amidst critical acclaim. The book that wakes up mainstream America to Winslow’s tsunami-sized talent. The book that allows him to take his place alongside John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard as one of America’s all-time best crime writers. The book.

In many ways, Savages is the Ultimate Don Winslow Novel. A tale of 20-something marijuana dealers in Southern California, the novel starts off like this:
Fuck you.
That’s the first sentence. The first page. And it gets better from there, following the aforementioned drug dealers -- Ben, a science genius turned Third World do-gooder; Chon, a Navy veteran who’s everything but shell-shocked; and their mutual girlfriend, O (for Ophelia), who’s not quite a party girl but not much of anything else either.

When the boys turn down an offer to work for the Baja cartel, the cartel kidnaps -- on orders from Elena, the beautiful head of the organization (as the book puts it, “Hillary would be pissed.”) -- O. Blackmailed into providing Elena’s organization with a steady stream of marijuana to pay O’s ransom, Chon decides to take the fight to the cartel. To say any more would destroy the fun, so let’s just say this:

Shenanigans ensue.

Part of the joy of reading Don Winslow is how he writes, and he continues to refine his “guy telling you a really great story at a bar” style in Savages. Here, his style is more experimental, with chapters in screenplay format and the style of Skype. The book is literal poetry at times, as when Winslow spends an entire chapter describing stores at Costa Mesa’s giant South Coast Plaza, one of the book’s highlights.

Winslow never lets his writing style overwhelm the story, though, and doesn’t forget to fill the book with anecdotes and historical asides that place this tale in a larger cultural context. I always come away from reading a Winslow book feeling like I learned something about the history of Southern California or the ongoing drug war. Both are featured here.

It’s a brilliant way of writing, although I would recommend starting with The Dawn Patrol and The Winter of Frankie Machine (2006) if you’ve never read Winslow before, just to see if you like his style.

Like other Winslow books, Savages gets its teeth in you and doesn’t let go. I tried to spread the novel out over a week or so, but once I got started, I couldn’t stop, reading the book in a couple of days. The plot is a straight Western with a modern coat of paint, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the world of Alpha Dog; and in telling this story, Winslow achieves something few authors have. While this might not be the book to push him into mainstream success, it still achieves a different kind of success. It turns out to be a different kind of book.

Savages is the book of my generation.

Savages is nothing short of revolutionary, a flash grenade into the ineffectual heart of Generation Y. A message for the kids who grew up in unparalleled economic prosperity with overeducated parents. The kids, to steal a line from another of Winslow's novels, who have a problem with impulse control. The kids who hit the brick wall of the Great Recession and wound up asking, “What do we do now?”

Ben and Chon are the answer to that question, a call to action, to wake up and to push back. They deserve to become the same kind of beloved anti-heroes as Tyler Durden and Quentin Tarantino’s protagonists.

And in using Ben and Chon and O and the whole Millennial Generation as characters, Winslow posits this generation as the end of a long era in American history, which he sums up in a beautiful passage near the end of the book:
We proclaimed the freedom of the individual, bought and drove millions of cars to prove it, built more roads for the cars to drive on so we could go the everywhere that was nowhere ...

We built temples to our fantasies -- film studios, amusement parks, crystal cathedrals, megachurches -- and flocked to them ...

We reinvented ourselves everyday, remade our culture, locked ourselves in gated communities, we ate healthy food, we gave up smoking, we lifted our faces while avoiding the sun, we had our skin peeled, our lines removed, our fat sucked away like our unwanted babies, we defied aging and death.

We made gods of wealth and health.

A religion of narcissism.

In the end, we worshipped only ourselves.

In the end, it wasn’t enough.
With the push Savages is receiving from its publisher, and director Oliver Stone’s plans to make a movie from the book, it looks as if the cult of Don Winslow is going to become a movement. That’s a very good thing for us all, because this novel solidifies Winslow’s reputation as not just one of the best crime writers working today, but one of the best writers, period.

Savages is a Great Book and it deserves to be thought of as such. But it also deserves a smaller, more resonant life. Not just a shelf life, but a pocket life. A book to be discovered in library stacks and used bookstores, faded and worn with love, a book teenagers find leaves them breathless and looking at the world with new eyes.

It should be a book older brothers pass down to younger brothers, and that senior students push into the hands of impressionable freshmen, saying, whispering:

“This book will change your life.”

Because that’s the kind of book it is, and reading Savages will make you feel like you’re that kind of kid again. I don’t care how old you are.

I want to be able to read it again. I want to read it for the first time again.

Jesus Christ, this book.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

damn great review. Don is also the most personable and likable guy you'll meet (having done so in real life). He needs to be in that upper-tier you're talking about of Great writers.

Friday, December 3, 2010 at 1:54:00 AM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just listened to this as a book on tape. It was AWESOME. I couldnt believe the topic of the marijuana industry growing and selling and the connection to the Mexican Mafia. The way he talked was totally SO CAL oriented and it hooked me instantly.
Looking for more books from Don today!!

Sunday, December 5, 2010 at 8:58:00 AM PST  

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