Savages by Don Winslow

February 15, 2011

The blurbs on the back of this ToB 2011 contender include phrases like “razor-sharp plot twists”, “addictive and entertaining”, “impossible to put down”, and, oddly, the “the finest novel I have read in years.” I say odd, because one has to wonder what novels Christopher Reich is reading. Savages is entertaining and has some nice plot twists, but it is as close to being the best novel I have read in years as “Tardy to the Party” is to being the best song I have heard in years. Well, maybe it is a little closer than that. I would not rather gouge my eyes out than ever read Savages again.

The heroes of Savages are Chon, Ben, and O. Chon is an ex-Navy Seal. He has “baditude”. Despite being something of a dweeb, Ben is Chon’s partner in both volleyball and designer marijuana production. O gets her nickname not from her given name “Ophelia”, but from her tendency to orgasm often and at volume.

Oh, oh, ohhhhh, OOOOHHH!

The etymology above is mine, but the author uses the, shall we say “technique”, throughout the 290 chapters/sections of this 302 page book. For instance,

San Diego
Sun Diego
Sun Dog
Fun Dog

Now, I might give it points for reminding me of Word Golf, a game popularized by Nabokov. But it is sort of a lame bastardization, so loses points for that. I should also give the book points for being somewhat innovative. The 290 numbered sections is not much of a start or innovation, though the reader has little time to become bored. There is also some wordplay. Some sections consist of excerpts from a screenplay.


What we need to do is force him to come work for us on our stated terms.

How are we going to do that?

(smiling cryptically)
I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.

The structuring of paragraphs is not always traditional, but sometimes printed to encourage the feeling of speed and action and intensity.

Lado’s eyes are cold stone?
Maybe because those eyes have seen–
His own hands holding a chain saw
Swooping through a man’s neck as
Blood sprayed.
Your eyes would be hard, too.
Your eyes would turn to stone.
Some of those seven men they begged, they cried, they pleaded to God, to their mamas, they said they had families, they pissed their trousers. Others said nothing, just looked with the silent resignation that Lado thinks is the expression of Mexico itself. Bad things are going to happen, it is simply a matter of when. They should stitch that on the flag.
He’s glad to be El Norte.

Lado is short for Helado which, we are told, is Spanish for “stone cold.” Yahoo! Babel Fish tells me it means “ice cream”, a decidedly less intimidating nickname. I will assume Babel Fish is not up on the latest Mexican slang and that Winslow is. To the point, Miguel “Lado” Arroyo is to Winslow as Anton Chigurh is to Cormac McCarthy.

Everything in the novel is geared toward hipness and excitement. Things are “2G2BT”, the chronic can be tailored to an incredible degree of specificity, the guns punch fist-sized holes in people’s bodies, the cartels’ enforcers play with chainsaws, and we know early that ex-Seal Chon and badass Lado must, eventually, meet….unless one gets killed on the way to the rendezvous. Winslow intends this to keep the reader off balance and interested. It works.

Before Ben and Chon can make or miss that connection with Lado, they must become embroiled in a turf war with Lado’s employer, Elena. Their love triangle with O provides predictable leverage to Elena. Anyone as worldly wise as Chon would have seen the threat to O and would have neutralized it. But Ben and Chon send O off to collect her things, alone. This lack of foresight by the heroes is matched by the villains. If you shake down an ex-Navy Seal and his partner for massive amounts of cash and then the proceeds from some of your drug sales goes missing in commando-style raids, two and two add pretty easily. We have to see Chon use his Seal training though.

Winslow has ambition beyond gun play and explosions. Ben starts as smart, affable, and anti-violence. He learns that your choice of career affects who you become. Anything as illegally lucrative as designer dope draws the ambitious and ruthless. The purple haze of live and let live cannot survive contact with reality. The change is a creeping one and plods along while minor characters are shredded.

The novel is enjoyable, notwithstanding a few annoyances, like the narrator’s pointing out Chon’s favorite words (“etymology” being one of those). Oliver Stone has apparently climbed on board for the movie. As thrills go, this is premium grade. I would be appalled if this actually won a Rooster, but, if you are looking to have your pants set on fire, you could do worse. The book seems as tailor made for the big screen as McCarthy’s drug-cash-guns blockbuster. The problem is that the sequel is rarely as good as the original. I recommend you start with No Country.