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Onyx reviews: Savages by Don Winslow

Don Winslow's latest book is a hip crime thriller steeped in the smoke of high-quality hydroponic marijuana and the kind of Mexican drug cartel violence that has been making headlines lately. The two hipsters who drive the action are partners in crime Ben and Chon, producers of the best ganja in So-Cal. They're like the Starbucks of marijuana, mixing custom blends for all occasions.

Ben is the brains, having studied both marketing and botany at Berkeley. The son of psychiatrists, he occasionally disappears to underprivileged countries where he participates in philanthropic endeavors, inevitably coming home from each mission with a different exotic disease or parasite each time.

Chon is a former Navy Seal with a "baditude," a veteran of several tours of "Stanland," which is what he calls Pakistan and Afghanistan. His profane attitude toward the universe is summed up in the two-word first chapter, but he's not a sociopath. He will take the peaceful option when one is available, and will never deliberately kill a woman (collateral damage in a bomb blast is acceptable).

The third member of their triad is a heavily tattooed sexpot named Ophelia who goes by "O," a reference to her vocal skills as a sexual partner. O (sometimes "Multiple O") is both a spoiled brat and a free spirit, hanging with Ben and Chon, usually one at a time but not always. She loves to shop and is a voracious consumer of popular culture. She calls her scatterbrained and oft-married mother Paqu, an acronym meaning Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe. Readers averse to foul language and explicit sex will find themselves in the wrong neighborhood, especially in chapters involving O.

The Baja Cartel, pushing into Southern California, insists that Ben and Chon change their business model. No more selling retail to distributors and customers in Laguna Beach. Instead, they're to wholesale their merchandise to the cartel. For emphasis, the duo receives a video demonstrating what will happen if they decline the "offer": decapitation. Rather than subject themselves to a hostile takeover, Ben proposes abandoning the business and retiring to Indonesia. This suggestion is not received well by the cartel, nor is Chon's non-diplomatic two-word epithet.

To ensure cooperation, the cartel kidnaps O. If Ben and Chon make trouble, they get to watch her execution live over the internet. If they agree to sell to the cartel, O will be freed in three years. The two men make a counter proposal. If they pay the anticipated profit up front, they'll be square. The only problem is that this will take $20 million and, after they liquidate all their accounts and property, they're a tad short. Which is when they come up with the plan to rob the cartel and use that money to complete the deal. Of course, they have to make sure the cartel never discovers they're behind the robberies. 

The novel consists of nearly 300 chapters, some as short as a few words. Lines of text are broken and indented erratically, and Winslow occasionally switches to screenplay format for certain passages. The dialog is clipped, stark and economical. Winslow's style is distinctive and gripping, reminiscent of Charlie Huston. At times he seems to be talking directly to the reader, explaining the etymology of jargon he or his characters use. Given the amount of drugs the characters smoke—even when they're conducting one of their drug cartel stings—the book should be funnier than it is, but the guys never get silly. They single-mindedly carry out their altruistic mission, which makes them seem somewhat less than realistic.

The cast of supporting characters includes the Queen of the Baja Cartel, a woman forced to take over the family business after her husband was murdered and her son proved incapable of the brutality required to run a drug gang, a bent federal agent in Ben and Chon's pay, an enforcer whose tool of choice is a chainsaw, a cartel member who turns informant, and a sympathetic kidnapper who turns O's prolonged confinement into something akin to a pajama party.

Chon argues that you "can't make peace with savages." At the time he's talking about the cartel, but it could apply either way. Ben and Chon's plan causes a gang war to erupt. Violence is in Chon's blood but it weighs heavily on pacifist Ben, who is forced to do unimaginable things to save O's life and has to come to terms with the results.

The first 95% of the novel is a roller-coaster drama that readers will find hard to put down. Then Winslow makes an ill-advised choice for the finale that Oliver Stone will probably have to change in his film adaptation. 

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