Savages, Don Winslow

<em class="BookTitle">Savages</em>, Don Winslow

Simon & Schuster, movie tie-in reprint edition of 2010 original, 336 pages, C$17.00 tp, ISBN 978-1-4516-6715-8

Life is filled with regrets, and as a dedicated reader, one of mine is that there’s simply not enough time in the world to read all the books I want to read.  (Especially given that I intend to spend the next few years raising my infant daughter rather than reading voraciously.)  I know my own corner of genre fiction pretty well, but there are so many other good books out there that I can’t possibly hope to read them all.  But then again, maybe that’s a feature of the reading universe rather than a bug –it means that there are always, and forever will be, great books to read.  Wonders await the constant reader.

In this case, I’m quite specifically happy to have discovered Don Winslow and Savages.  It took Oliver Stone’s film adaptation to bring me to the novel, but no matter: Savages is a great contemporary crime novel, told in a vivid and efficient style that had me reading the book in the kind of happy trance that I only get from exceptional fiction.

Little of the impact of the book can be guessed from a synopsis of the plot, although much of the novel’s hip contemporary flavour certainly comes through: In early-2009 South California, two boutique drug entrepreneurs are targeted by a Mexican drug cartel: The cartels love their superior product but wish to muscle in on their profits.  When the two small-time dealers try to opt out of the “deal”, things quickly escalate when the young woman who loves them equally (yes, this means exactly what you think it does) is kidnapped and held against their cooperation.  Before long, our protagonists are pitting corrupt DEA agents against a crime matriarch and her brutal enforcer.

As a pathological reader with a professional sideline in film reviewing, I have learned a long time ago that it’s always best to go from film to novel, appreciating the way a novel expands upon the events of the film.  Savages does something more, though: while the film adds an unnecessary meta-fictional trick at the end of the story (one that both softens and weakens the hard ending of the novel), the book will surprise movie viewers and please readers through sheer style.  From the very first chapter (solely composed of a popular two-word obscenity) onward, it’s clear that Winslow’s not content with the usual objective tight-third-person hum-drum narration.  Oh no: Savages roars on full-octane style.  Ellipses, parentheses, in-your-face omniscient narration, interrupted sentences, impressionistic fragments, script excerpts, invented vocabulary (as in “PAQU” for Passive-Aggressive Queen of the Universe), short paragraphs, punchy sentences are all part of Winslow’s arsenal here and the result is one constantly absorbing read from beginning to end.

Despite the economy of words, Winslow also ends up a surprisingly funny writer.  Never mind the implied dialogue between narrator and reader (“and no, there won’t be a quiz at the end because we’re talking about stoners here” [P.21]).  Have a look at this paragraph describing the qualities of a particularly potent strain of marijuana:

This was a plant that could almost get up, walk around, find a lighter, and fire itself up.  Read Wittgenstein, have deep conversations about the meaning of life with you, cocreate a television series for HBO, cause peace in the Middle East (“ The Israelis and Palestinians could coexist in two parallel universes, sharing space but not time”).  It took a strong man –or a strong woman, in O’s case –to take more than one hit of the Ultra White Widow. [P.37]

Hilarious… and Savages is filled with passages such as this one.  It amounts to a memorable reading experience that trades heft for speed and impact: It’s a short novel, but one that fully rewards the reader.  As a look at the modern drug business, it feels credible.  But it’s as a piece of storytelling that Savages shines best.  I haven’t read a novel told quite like this before, and I do like the result.  I may currently be in the middle of a self-imposed moratorium on buying new books, but once I get back to my addict ways, Don Winslow is on the list of authors who deserve some further attention.

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