The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

August 12, 2010

REVIEW: SAVAGES by Don Winslow

Ben and Chon grow and sell the finest marijuana in SoCal. Business partners and best friends, they even share the same girlfriend, an Orange County Princess called O, short for Ophelia. Beyond providing healthcare benefits for their dealers, the philanthropic Ben also spends a lot of time digging wells, building schools, and providing mosquito nets in developing countries. Chon spends a lot of time staying fit and enjoying his time away from Iraq and Afghanistan. O -- well, she divides her time between sex and shopping. Then one fine day the Baja Cartel come calling, sending in advance a video of a few severed heads for emphasis. The cartel demands that Ben and Chon pretty much turn over the business to them. And they kidnap O for use as a bargaining chip. Ben and Chon have no choice but to do whatever the cartel wants if they want to save O's life (and perhaps their own). Because two men cannot possibly bring down an entire cartel. Can they?

From that summary you might think you won't like Ben, O, and Chon. Drug dealers? C'mon. But you will. They are not so very different from many of the bright, fun-loving, intelligent young people who got their sheepskins this last spring. But they are, taken as a whole, an unusual trinity: Ben, the genius in botany; Chon, the soldier; O, the rebellious daughter and free-spender. But they aren't just close friends, they are loyal and have good hearts and intentions. The Cartel -- not so much. To survive, Ben and O and Chon will have to set aside their good intentions, their veneer of civilization, and reveal themselves to be just as savage as their enemies.

Don Winslow is getting rave reviews for this book and deservedly so. The prose is cool, clipped, and the word games alone will knock you sideways. And as with all great books, there's more than just a story here. Commentaries and revelations abound, on our culture (carelessness, stupidity, and greed), and on our politics, and there's a stunningly beautiful parable to be found as well. The third-person narrative voice (Greek chorus?) is detached, cynical, wise, street-wise, and more than a trifle bitchy. Love, says the narrator, will make you weak, then goes on to reveal how love also makes one strong.

Winslow applies wit, worldview, and savagery (yes, that's the word) to the American dream, speaking to American society as a whole about how we define ourselves and how other cultures define us; about what, if anything, separates the savage from the civilized; and he speaks in a sometimes staccato, sometimes sensuous, rapid-fire wordsmithing that is both enlightening and entertaining. Savages is worthy of multiple reads (or listens, because the audio version is brilliantly read by Michael Kramer), and you won't get these characters, or their story, out of your head for -- maybe never. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. AND THEN SOME.

My neverending gratitude goes to Michael for providing me with the wonderful (and autographed!) audio edition of Savages. I can honestly say that if asked which I preferred, audio or hardcopy, I could not choose. If you are as lucky as I am and have the opportunity to experience both, do so. This is a work that easily eclipses its format.

Here is an excerpt in which O and Chon first see the video clip involving the severed heads.

RU Reddy 4--

Decapitation porn?

Check that.

Gay decapitation porn?!

O knows that Chon is seriously twisted -- no, she knows that Chon is seriously twisted -- but not like day-old-spaghetti-in-a-bowl twisted, like getting off on guys getting their heads lopped off, like that TV show about the British king, every cute chick he fucks ends up getting her head cut off. (Moral of television show: if you give a guy really good head (heh heh), he thinks you're a whore and breaks up with you. Or: Sex = Death.)

"Who sent this to you?" O asks him.

Is it viral, floating around on YouTube, the MustSee vid-clip of the day? MySpace, Facebook (no, that isn't funny), Hulu? Is this what everyone's watching today, forwarding to their friends, you gotta check this out?

"Who sent this to you?" she repeats.

"Savages," Chon says.


  1. One very fine book review! It really captures what Winslow is getting down on the pages. This was one of the things I experienced, let alone read, this year. I'm glad you enjoyed the audiobook. I hope you get a chance to meet the author. DW is one great author, and a fantastic story-teller. Thanks very much for this.

  2. I hope Winslow will be at B'con next year. Otherwise I doubt if I'll ever see him touring east of the Mississippi.

    This book -- so remarkable. I can't write spoilers here, but I just can't get that ending -- and what it means -- out of my head.

    One qualm -- I worry we will now experience a deluge of Winslow-wannabes drowning us in copy-cat prose. I hope not. The temptation to shoot them down will be overwhelming.

  3. Don't you feel like the entire book is quotable? It was hard for me to pick just one passage to show how good the writing is. I like your excerpt and also the follow-up that said something like, "Take de deal or take de capitation."

  4. Got this in the mail yesterday and can't wait to dive in! Great review. :-)

  5. PCN, you are so right. I wanted to quote the whole book! I really wanted one of the sections where Winslow does the etymology of the word/phrase. I loved those.

    Elizabeth, I can't wait for your reaction.

  6. I loved his description of Chon, how he's a man of few words not because he doesn't like them but because he likes them so much he wants to keep them to himself.

  7. Maybe that's why Joe Pike doesn't talk so much either?

  8. I think you've just figured out Pike.

  9. This is a book everyone seems to agree on.

  10. Patti, I did read one blog review that had nothing positive to say, but I had the feeling that the reviewer not only didn't see the big picture, but missed most of the little ones, too.