‘The “War and Peace” of dope­war books’

Don Winslow just can’t look away from drug vi­o­lence in Mexico. He re­turns to it again with ‘The Car­tel.’

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Ivy Pochoda Pochoda is the au­thor, most re­cently, of “Vis­i­ta­tion Street.”

Don Winslow is a slight man, soft-spo­ken and re­mark­ably po­lite. His quiet in­tel­li­gence, care­ful elo­cu­tion and slightly rum­pled suit (in his de­fense he has just rid­den a train for twohours) might trick you into mis­tak­ing him for a pro­fes­sor at a small lib­eral arts col­le­geor per­haps an au­thor of the sort of books that take place in small col­lege towns.

Don’t be de­ceived — Winslow has de­liv­ered two of most sav­agely vi­o­lent, not to men­tion emo­tion­ally res­o­nant, nov­els in the past decade, 2005’s “The Power of the Dog” and its epic con­clu­sion, “The Car­tel” (Al­fred A. Knopf: 616 pp., $27.95), pub­lished this month, which has been dubbed by James Ell­roy “the ‘War and Peace’ of dope war books.” Somemight rea­son­ably ar­gue there’s lit­tle peace in ei­ther novel.

One trope of in­ter­view­ing au­thors is to meet them some­where rel­e­vant to their most re­cent book. Given the sub­ject mat­ter of Winslow’s latest, the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can drug war, neu­tral ground seems a bet­ter bet — in this case down­town’s Los An­ge­les Ath­letic Club. It turns out that this is fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. Winslow used to have lunch at the club when he was a PI in­ves­ti­gat­ing ar­son mur­ders for a law firm based in the nearby Bilt­more Ho­tel. That’s the thing about spend­ing time with him. Winslow’s life is al­most as com­pelling as the17 nov­els he’s writ­ten.

Not many crime nov­el­ists can con­tin­u­ally mine their own ex­pe­ri­ence for ma­te­rial. Winslow has ma­te­rial to spare. He worked as a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor dur­ing the sleazy hey­day of Times Square in the 1970s, then re­turned to school for a grad­u­ate de­gree in mil­i­tary history, in­tend­ing to join the State Depart­ment as an ex­pert on coun­terin­sur­gency war­fare in Africa (he’s con­ver­sant in both Zulu and Swahili) but be­came a sa­fari guide in­stead.

Itwas the of­fer of another PI gig that drew the Rhode Is­land na­tive out west, first to Los An­ge­les, then down to Or­ange County, and when that proved to be too stuffy and con­ser­va­tive for him and his wife, Jean, far­ther south to Ju­lian, a Gold Rush town an hour east of San Diego famed for its ap­ple or­chards.

Winslow says he never meant to write some­thing as ter­ri­fy­ing or his­tor­i­cally de­tailed as “The Power of the Dog.” His pre­vi­ous nov­els are fairly tra­di­tional crime fic­tion, although not run of the mill. But one day in Ju­lian he picked up the pa­per and read that 19 peo­ple had been ma­chine gunned to death in Ense­nada, a Mex­i­can beach town just over an hour south of San Diego where he and his wife va­ca­tioned. He soon found him­self un­able to turn away fromthe daily re­ports of narco vi­o­lence.

It took Winslow 10 years and count­less per­ilous trips Mexico to com­plete “The Power of the Dog.” When he fin­ished he swore he’d never re­visit its bloody ter­rain.

“Af­ter I was done my wife was re­lieved,” he says. “I was ob­sessed and not with pup­pies or sail­ing but with mass mur­ders. And when you fin­ish writ­ing a book like that you think, ‘I’ve writ­ten the worst of the worst. We’re throw­ing kids off of bridges. We’re mas­sacring fam­i­lies with ma­chine guns. How much worse can it get?” The an­swer: much­worse.

By his own ad­mis­sion Winslow was dragged kick­ing and scream­ing into writ­ing “The Car­tel.” When Shane Salerno, his scriptwrit­ing part­ner and pro­ducer on sev­eral adap­ta­tions of his nov­els, in­clud­ing the Oliver Stone-di­rected “Sav­ages,” pitched him on a se­quel, he hung up the phone. But the dam­age had al­ready been done.

“I felt that I was a de­serter, sit­ting on the side­lines,” Winslow says. Hewas all too aware of the es­ca­lat­ing vi­o­lence across the bor­der, where the car­tels were re­form­ing and grow­ing more deadly. He also found him­self in­creas­ingly in­fu­ri­ated by the con­tin­ued home­grown ig­no­rance and po­lit­i­cal schizophre­nia con­cern­ing the drug wars. “Amer­i­cans don’t un­der­stand Mexico. They think it’s the Mex­i­can drug prob­lem when it’s re­ally the Amer­i­can drug prob­lem and to a lesser ex­tent the Euro­pean drug prob­lem. What’s crazy is that the U.S. spends bil­lions im­port­ing drugs and also bil­lions fight­ing them.” So he dived back in.

Winslow treats writ­ing as a fac­tory job, one that he loves. Andhe’s good at it. His prose is sparse and fe­ro­cious, and his rapid-fire story hits you like bul­lets fro­man AK-47. There’s no fat on his pages, no room for ru­mi­na­tion or con­tem­pla­tion. He shifts point of view re­peat­edly, some­times even af­ter a sin­gle para­graph. It shouldn’t work. But it does.

This go-round he didn’t have to travel to Mexico to un­earth the latest atroc­i­ties. He could con­duct most of his re­search online. “In ‘Dog’ Iwas try­ing to un­lock se­crets. But in ‘The Car­tel’ there were no more se­crets.” In fact, the very method he used to re­search the book be­came part of the nar­ra­tive. “Peo­ple were pro­claim­ing their crimes on web­sites, on ban­ners, and by tak­ing ads out in news­pa­pers,” he ex­plains. “Things were de­vel­op­ing in real time in front of you on so­cial media. At times I felt as if I was watch­ing a hideously real ‘Gameof Thrones’ with sim­i­lar vi­o­lence, mo­ti­va­tions and shift­ing al­liances. The prob­lem is you’re deal­ing with real peo­ple.”

While writ­ing “The Car­tel” much of his work­day was spent watch­ing atroc­ity videos and scour­ing Mexico’s in­fa­mous red press— a species of media de­voted to the pornog­ra­phy of vi­o­lence. This process made him feel like a voyeur, and he wor­ried that the amount of death— the body count on sev­eral pages of the “The Car­tel” nearly hits triple dig­its — would be de­sen­si­tiz­ing to read­ers. So Winslow worked hard to put names to the bod­ies, cross-ref­er­enc­ing news­pa­per and po­lice re­ports and red press pho­to­graphs.

“It was the very least I could do to give each vic­tim a name,” he says.

But it’s not only vic­tims Winslow treats with re­spect. He be­stows a depth and if not hu­man­ity, then hu­man-ness, on even the drug lords. “For me it’s not good enough to say, that’s a bad guy. You have to at least see the world through his point of view. You might not like what you’re look­ing at and the­way that they think, but you have to make that ef­fort.”

Which is why af­ter so many years im­mersed in the narco world, Winslow be­lieves fic­tion is a more pow­er­ful tool that jour­nal­ism for un­der­stand­ing the dev­as­ta­tion in Mexico.

“As nov­el­ists, we have li­cense to imag­ine peo­ple’s emo­tions and psy­chol­ogy and views of the world. I think that I can bring peo­ple closer to a story,” he says. “Jour­nal­ism can give the facts, but fic­tion can tell the truth.”

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

“AMER­I­CANS don’t un­der­stand Mexico,” says “Car­tel” au­thor DonWinslow. “They think it’s the Mex­i­can drug prob­lem when it’s re­ally the Amer­i­can drug prob­lem.”

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