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Book Review

A modern-day high noon in ‘Savages’

By Carlo Wolff
Globe Correspondent / July 19, 2010

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Don Winslow is a former private investigator who lives in Southern California and writes fiction about contemporary industries gone wrong, including insurance, surfing, and narcotics. His latest novel focuses on the drug trade in the San Diego area, pitting local boys against a Mexican cartel. It’s an ultra-lean, stoner thriller.

The book begins with a two-word chapter that can’t be reproduced in a family newspaper and ends more than 300 pages later on a note both elegiac and kinky. It packs a dynamic plot, sentences dripping with “baditude’’ and a singular way with language.

As in earlier novels such as the more ambitious “Power of the Dog’’ and “The Dawn Patrol,’’ a streamlined foray into surfer culture, Winslow’s writing has the vigor of action painting. Some pages are presented as film scripts, as though the character at the center of the action is imagining his or her life as a film; one, in which a key character, Ophelia, communes with Oprah and Dr. Phil, speaks tellingly to our celebrity-obsessed culture. In addition, Winslow uses words architecturally, breaking this book into tiny scenes and occasional one-word paragraphs that segue into one another effortlessly.

He also pivots easily from inside a character’s mind to omniscience. This command of viewpoint and linguistic flash almost make up for shortcomings: Ben, an environmentalist groovemaster who sells killer weed, and his partner Chon, a former SEAL and the warrior of the pair, are little more than action figures, and Ophelia, or “O,’’ the soulmate the two sometimes share sexually, rarely rises above Valley Girl status.

Maybe that’s harsh, but the book, an update of a Western in which chemicals substitute for cattle, feels thin. At the same time, it moves. Basically, this is a drug war book pitting Ben and Chon and their peaceful Laguna marijuana sales operation against Elena la Reina, the sexy, murderous head of Mexico’s Baja Cartel. When Elena’s goons attempt to take over the Laguna enterprise and turn it into a franchise, Ben and Chon balk, so Elena arranges to have Ophelia kidnapped. Only when Ben and Chon agree to that pact and pony up $20 million in ransom money for O will peace return.

Plot elements Winslow delves into but doesn’t develop include Elena’s relationships with men, O’s tenuous and often amusing bond with a mother from whom she gets her New Age leanings, and characters such as Esteban, a Baja Cartel drone who helps O pass captivity time.

Similarly, Winslow also tends to give short shrift to some minor but nevertheless interesting characters like Gun Shop Barney, a right-wing talk-radio fan who trades in drug intel, and Ken “Doc’’ Lorenzen, a former medic on Chon’s SEAL team who comes to Chon’s aid after a particularly dangerous robbery.

Winslow’s command of vernacular is fabulous, his eye for detail sharp. Ben and Chon counter the Baja Cartel juggernaut with ingenuity and élan, pitting competing Mexican drug operations against it and fighting back in even more brazen ways. Chon’s tour of duty in Afghanistan steels him for this, and he rediscovers his way with weapons including a Barrett Model 90, a “humongoid sniper rifle’’ that will help him fight, but only if Ben discovers his “inner Taliban.’’

The action is fast and furious. Winslow’s insights into drug wars are provocative, his descriptions of marijuana tantalizing (bet you didn’t know the indica strain is relaxing, the sativa strain sexy and energizing), his grasp of the border mind-set shrewd. You may not care about the characters in “Savages,’’ but you’ll stay on its entertaining case all the way through.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer from Cleveland, can be reached at carlo.wolff@gmail.com.

SAVAGES
By Don Winslow
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $25