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.
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
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
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.
Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent
2007-2010. All rights reserved