The Short Version: Ben and Chon grow and sell amazing pot. O (short for Ophelia) loves them both. Ben does humanitarian aid, Chon has PTLSD (post-traumatic lack of stress disorder, natch), O loves shopping and coming. It’s a pretty amazing life – until a Mexican drug cartel decides they want in on Ben & Chonny’s action. Shit gets real, kids – shit gets real.
The Review: Okay, first thing first: the first page. This is the gambit that got everyone talking about this novel. A good first page – hell, a good first line – is not always the signifier of a good book but it is definitely a signifier of me reading your book. Mr. Winslow comes out guns blazing and sets the tone for the whole novel with a ‘1’, two simple words, and an otherwise blank page. Those two words, so seemingly innocently placed on the center of the page?
This is the sort of thing that would turn a lot of people off, I’m sure. I am not one of those people. The book is split into 200-some chapters… and it’s only 302 pages. The pure adrenalin shot that propels you forward from page one has a purpose: the whole book is meant to read like a fucking rocketship. It isn’t the Dan Brown method (making the end of each chapter a cliff-hanger) but what I think we might want to call the Savages method – it’s its own thing. The dialogue is muscular, pulpy – the action sharp and crisp – the characters engaging and interesting, albeit a little two-dimensional. You fly through these pages yes because chapters are short but also because you don’t want the ride to stop. A book about drugs that was actually written to mimic the experience of doing drugs – well done, Mr. Winslow.
Of course, like any movie or book about any drug other than pot will tell you, there’s a downside. The denouement is not only a little too clean and tidy but as the page (and chapter) count speed forward, you find yourself a little dissatisfied. You want it to feel like it did at the start! When it was fresh and clean and fast and exciting! Suddenly things are a little messy, a little sloppy. The resolution comes abruptly and like a Jay McInerney character, you come out of the novel stumbling against the harsh sunlight of reality and feeling a little hungover. The moment passed just pages before the end where you thought more would be a good idea – suddenly you realized that you want to just rinse everything out of your system and acknowledge it as a good night but one never to be repeated. It’s that kind of ending. It is, absolutely and unequivocally, a letdown. I’m not sure there’s a different ending to be had – this one is actually rather fitting in terms of plot. It’s the execution that lets you down. In the one moment where it would’ve been acceptable to slow things down a bit and let things play out, Winslow punches the turbo and the book is essentially over before you know it. It’s unfair to the characters and the story – it all just happens as though he thought “right, 10 minutes to finish this: let me pad my outline and great, done.”
Otherwise, this is one hell of a book. Goddamn, is it one hell of a book. Winslow manages to have some fun with the disaffected twenty-something model by winking at it in the smartest of ways. For example, all of the acronyms throughout the book (also the nicknames for places) and the color commentary we get on how those titles were created. PTLSD is one of them – PAQU is another. They’re witty and dropped in without flourish. There’s no sense of “look, this is hip!” but instead a sense of being introduced to a world. There’s no authorial wanking going on but just a bright and crisp illumination of this world we’re entering.
The author’s history in crime novels obviously helps – his writing has a smack to it. There’s a sharpness about everything, as though shot on an HD camera right when HD hit (not now, when we’re all pretty used to it) – it almost takes your breath away. It’s that sort of sharp, clean writing. It’s also clearly cinema-ready – apparently Oliver Stone is directing an adaptation and is a friend of the author. I’ll go see it, although I’m sure that the characters on-screen will have less redeeming qualities. They’re tailor-made for a book because we don’t actually see them living this incredible easy life. We imagine it and that, for some reason, makes it (to me) a bit more palatable. Plus, I don’t know how you’re going to get away (even in a hard-R, which this absolutely must be) with the scene where Ben and Chon and O go to bed. 1) it was incredibly hot and 2) it was a no-doubt-about-it “we were this close to being gay” double penetration scene. That’s a quote from the book, by the way.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Look. Let’s stop shitting on genre books (yeah, that’s right, talking to you, Tournament of Books!) and acknowledge that great writing is great writing, even if it’s in the ‘low’ fields. This book? This is great writing. Does it trail off a bit after the adrenalin spike of the first 100 pages? A bit. Does the end fall off rather precipitously from there as well? Maybe. Does that make it a bad book? Absolutely not. This book is the literary equivalent of a really great rock album. 9 tracks, no more than 40 minutes, lots of drums and guitars and scissor-kicking vocalists. It’s Van Halen’s “Fair Warning” on paper. It never overstays its welcome and maybe you don’t love the last track (…looking at you, “Fair Warning”) but the overwhelming awesome of the first 8 tracks makes it all worth it. Give yourself a day or two to read this – you’ll be sneaking chapters at work, in bed, while cooking. It’s really that much fun.
Savages, by Don Winslow
Simon & Schuester, paperback, 2011