Friday, July 10, 2015

The Donald

After recently introducing the progeny to Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break before they could be exposed to this year's remake, my thoughts turned, as they inevitably will, to the work of Kem Nunn (whose 1984 seminal surf noir novel Tapping the Source is widely un-acknowledged as being the er source material for the 1991 movie) and I'm enjoying the hell out of his 2005 book Tijuana Straits right now. It's a world I have zero first hand knowledge of, but feels familiar from his previous books as well as fare like Newton Thornburg's Cutter and BoneJohnny Shaw's Mexicali books, the oft-lamented short-lived Terriers and of course don Winslow.

The Cartel the latest from Don Winslow is a sequel to his magnum opus The Power of the Dog and a more anticipated new book is hard to imagine. Between the two (large) books he's created/ing a fictional parallel history of the War On Drugs akin to say James Ellroy's Underground USA trilogy's treatment of the national turbulence of the 1960s. Both writers are heroes for crafting high-velocity unputdownable 'genre works' that land hard and burrow deep the way you want works of capital-A art to do. The following is a piece I published previously, on another site that no longer exists, on the release of Winslow's The Kings of Cool.


In the future some poor blogger who shares my interests and sensibilities is going to haaaate Don Winslow. Future Me-But-Not-Me is going to blame the rash of lazy writers - trying to inject sweet-shots, ingest chill-pills or smoke up big fat rolls-o-rose-prose to mimic the authors they envy and produce something that resembles the inspiring and influential books of their time, in only the most superficial of ways, that’s spreading across the reading public’s (er) awareness like bad acne - on him. Future Me-But-Not-Me is going to bemoan the crop of self-consciously ‘stylish’ hacks aping the greats, for their soul-numbing Xeroxercises (yes, in the future, the hip retro-kids will know what a Xerox machine once did and Xeroxercising will be ‘a thing,’ I’m calling it now), and Future Me-But-Not-Me will resolve to remove them, like the weeds they will be – crowding the natural resources and choking out what is precious and useful. Future Me-But-Not-Me will become a zealot – pulling, hacking, spraying, napalming them from his bookshelves (Future Me-But-Not-Me will probably still have those) – and in his zeal will probably go so far as to chop at roots of the sacred tree, beneath whose mighty limbs the saplings and the weeds alike shelter and grow.

Please forgive Future Me-But-Not-Me. He knoweth not…

How stale things got for a while there. How impoverished popular crime fiction was before Winslow broke through to the main stream. And what a breath of fresh air, what a cool breeze on the underground the Don’s arrival was. The spines of his books cracked like pull-tabs on pop, and if you finished one at bed-time, you woke and had some hair of the power of the dog that bit you, first thing in the morning. Cause –

That’s how vital it was. That’s what a rush you got when you first read Savages.

Winslow’s breakout novel may’ve come out in 2010, but 2012 will be the year everybody caught on after the one-two combination of a high-profile movie adaptation by Oliver Stone (have you not saved the date? July 6, kids) and the prequel novel The Kings of Cool.

When I heard The Kings of Cool was coming and that it was going to be a prequel to Savages, I had mixed reactions: New Winslow? Awesome. The previous exploits of Ben & Chon & O? Do we need them? But The Kings of Cool is far more than a movie tie-in or an unnecessary sequel to the author’s most popular book, it’s the lynch-pin that holds together Winslow’s whole alternate So-Cal universe.

Yeah, Ben, Chon, O, Pacqu, Lado and more get their origins examined further in a 2005-set story-line, but We Were Hot Young Drug Lords: The Greatest Generation’s story is at least equally compelling – tying each of the leads in Savages to their spiritual and biological roots and even inviting second cousins like Bobby Z and Frankie Machine to the party.

The Kings of Cool, like Savages, reads like Elmore Leonard with ADD. It’s groovy, and nasty. Smooth, but also jumpy. It’s dangerous and very playful. It’s of its time, but it’s of many times (Are you at the bookstore? Pick it up and read chapter 243, yeah, there are over 300 chapters, for the Reader’s Digest condensed version of a generation’s forty-year journey from idealism to just-trying-to-deal-ism). The chapters cut-off in the middle of sentences, the format sometimes switches to a stripped-down screenplay, heightening the cinematic feel of story-telling, while the rest of it reads like a Benzedrine-jacked prose poem laced with

The Four Keys of Winslowism

The Off-Key: The familiar, but not quite, Big-Sur-Real World atmosphere and setting

The Metric Key: Which most of his books revolve around the sale, acquiring, transportation and cultivation of in various controlled substances.

The Low-Key: A trait shared by many of his best characters like Ben in Savages and The Kings of Cool, Boone in The Dawn Patrol and The Gentlemen's Hour, or Jack in California Fire and Life.

The Loki: The Norse god of mischief, tricks or trouble who the rest of his characters seem to be channeling. They're the always-lit fuse fizzing and sparking beneath the placid surface of a Winslow book who you can count on to sooner or later jump off.

Don’s work has got heart. And guts. And vision. I beg you, Future Me-But-Not-Me, to invest in the classics and dismiss the classless. It's the alluring flash of that singular style that a lesser artist will not be able to wield that Future Me-But-Not-Me and other discerning readers of crime fiction are going to grow tired of seeing trotted out like Geronimo in drag for countless lesser battles and matinee performances by the smack-talkin word-slingers of tomorrow.

The kind of punks who think that war paint a Savage makes.


Les Edgerton said...

Winslow's the best! I have a small connection--we used to have the same agent--Jimmy Vines--before Jimmy did a no-no and got kicked out of the agents' union...

jedidiah ayres said...

No-no? Tell-tell! Yes-yes!

JJStick said...

Winslow is the best. Savages was not a good movie despite the nudity...

jedidiah ayres said...

Savages the movie was certainly not on the same level as the book. Did have merit in several respects though. A handful of scenes were suuuuper effective - the heist scene and Del Toro intimidates Shea Whigham spring to mind and even John Travolta comes off pretty good. But yeah, I would certainly recommend the book over the film any day. Same screenwriter is adapting Power of the Dog right now. Hope it's better.