Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review: Don Winslow’s “Savages”

zz48c0abcb The first chapter of Don Winslow’s new book, Savages, is two words on one page:

“Fuck you.”

If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, you might as put the book down and pick up something delicate and sensitive. Savages is neither. It can be glib and pithy, flippant and thoughtful. Just when you’re about to send it spiraling across the room, Winslow gets it just right, and you feel bad for rolling your eyes five times in the last five pages.

Savages is a rampage through the amoral human wasteland of Southern California. At times, its style seems to be the sum of its characters: like Ben, the wunderkind pot-grower, it can slow (slightly) for a little bit of rhapsody; like Chon, the ex-SEAL, it can be brutally simple; and Ophelia, the multi-orgasmic object of affection, it can snap its bubblegum right in your face.

But Savages is most like Chon and Ophelia. Pain and pleasure, death and ecstasy, the book doesn’t stop until its final standoff, where bodies litter the desert like snuffed-out cigarette butts. It isn’t trying to be deep; it doesn’t strain for meaning. I spent more than 250 pages wondering if the book was brilliant or vapid; I haven’t decided, but I’m pretty sure I liked it.

Savages reads at times like an exercise in bone-bare minimalism, but not the kind McCarthy set forth in The Road. If you imagine the latter as a weary old man, too tired to embellish or rhapsodize, the former is a jittery twentysomething, hopped up on speed and pushed forward by the premonition that something very bad is going to happen very soon. In Winslow’s spirit of manic brevity, here's your plot synopsis:

Ben is a genius and grows really good pot. He wants world peace. Chon is an ex-Navy SEAL who is very good at killing people. They're in business together. They're both sleeping with Ophelia, O, a mutual best friend who multiple-Os with the slightest shift in breeze. The Baja Cartel likes Ben's pot and wants to sell it. To prove their point, they send him a video of eight decapitated heads. Chon says screw them. Ben agrees, sort of. O is too busy being SoCal superficial to realize she'll be human collateral in a few dozen pages.

The book screams by without pausing for breath. Paragraphs are short. Sentences are shorter. As Janet Maslin notes in her otherwise glowing review, Winslow has an obnoxious and affected habit of breaking up sentences

into poems

like this.

Sometimes it has the desired effect: Winslow’s voice comes through with perfect clarity. Others, you cock back your arm and prepare to let fly - only you don't, because you want to know what happens next. Because its fast-and-easy shallowness is only, well, skin deep, and for their simplicity, his characters are roundly convincing. Chon reminds me of a few Marines I know – people who are good at fighting, and wouldn’t mind fighting some more. For all its glib cool, Savages carries a tone of truth. You don’t get a lot of metaphors, here. The book itself reads like it has a train to catch.

Which is exactly how Winslow writes. In an interview with Bookslut, he talks about writing one of his prior novels, The Life and Death of Bobby Z:

“When I was writing that book, I thought my career was over. I was still working legal cases and taking a train back and forth to L.A. I quickly found that it’s more fun to write a book on a train than read a book on a train. I’d write a chapter going up, and a chapter coming back. Where ever I was in the book, when I heard the conductor say, ‘Union Station, ten minutes,’ I’d wrap the chapter up.”

Writing under the gun works well for Winslow. In Savages, his drug dealers live under it, work under it, and flee from it. There’s an imminence in firearms that I think Winslow understands, and when he runs that understanding through his prose, the result is electric.

I found myself thinking of Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move more than a few times. I liked Johnson’s book, a noir exercise written for serial publication in Playboy. But everything from the form to the venue felt cynical, as if the author were self-consciously trying to write something trashy and fun. Johnson had won the National Book Award the year before for Tree of Smoke, a hulking and ambitious Vietnam War novel; no matter how good it is, Nobody Move struts in borrowed clothes. Savages dispenses with literary flair and goes straight for the trigger.

Writing about Benjamin Black's noir novel Christine Falls, I said all good crime fiction is about sin - not crime, per se, not violations of the statues and laws of society, but the blood-black acts against mankind, the really unforgivable shit. I’m now tempted to revise that. Savages bypasses gravitas with so little thought it's shocking - and refreshing. There's no hand-wringing. When a corrupt official steps in front of an oncoming train, not a word is spent on his death. It was his call, and so far as fates go, it's probably better than what he had coming. Why bother with angst?