Set the Tigers Free

Don savagesThere is, I think, a tendency to feel like good literature has to be hard work for the reader.  If you’re not struggling with complexity of plot or density of language or you’re not busily unraveling the complex web of characters the author has spun, it’s just not worth your time. Like medicine, if literature is to be good for you it can’t taste too sweet or be too easy to swallow.  It has to make you scowl and stick out your tongue.

This is the same kind of rule that largely defines the high school canon, where literature that students might actually be interested in reading is viewed as less weighty, less rigorous, less important, and so it’s jettisoned in favor of the old standbys, the books that conventional wisdom claims will turn students into better people at the expense of any interest they might have in ever picking up another book.  If you’re not a regular reader and what you’re given to read does nothing for you, why would you ever think it could be anything else?  Some authors have recently been pushing back on this notion.  Michael Chabon comes most readily to mind, but there are certainly others who have been dabbling in and endorsing genre fiction, elevating its status and reminding us that a conventional story well told has just as much value as whatever weighty tome the critics are currently lauding.  Put the best of Elmore Leonard against the best of Thomas Pynchon, and I can tell you which I’d prefer 100% of the time.

(Pssssst.  It’s Leonard.)

Don Winslow’s Savages is maybe the best recent example of Chabon’s argument I’ve encountered.  It’s genre fiction through and through, but it’s also a pure adrenaline rush with a knowing smirk, a hard-boiled thriller that borrows stylistic tools from Ellroy and a sense of humor from Vonnegut, if Vonnegut spiked his altruism with a bitter vein of nihilism.  It’s better written than any pitch-black revenge story has a right to be, Winslow’s hyper-kinetic prose shuttling the reader effortlessly between Laguna Beach and Mexico. It’s also a story of nuanced characters and complex motivations.  And, important in the context of my first two paragraphs, it’s an incredibly easy read; 300 pages that go down like a glass of lemonade on a sweaty summer day.

We know what we’re in for from the very beginning.  Here’s the sum total, the entire contents, of Chapter 1:

Fuck you.

From there, Winslow puts his foot to the pedal and doesn’t ease up until he reaches his destination.  It’s short chapters and bare bones, almost poetic, description, such as in a passage that sets up the primary difference between the two main characters.  Chon, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Ben, a quasi-hippie world traveler, are also heavy-duty pot dealers – a drugged-up Abbot and Costello, a THC-infused yin and yang – and Winslow establishes the difference in their worldview thusly:

“Don’t fuck with people at all”

Is a central tenet of Ben’s personal as well as business philosophy.

Ben is a self-described Baddhist, i.e., a “bad Buddhist,” because he sometimes eats meat, gets angry, rarely meditates, and definitely does consciousness-altering substances.  But the basics of Buddhism, Ben is down with –

Do no harm

Which Ben articulates as

Don’t fuck with people.

And he doesn’t think the Dalai Lama would argue with that.


Ben strives to be nonviolent and honest in a business that is violent and dishonest.

“But it doesn’t have to be,” Ben has argued.

“But it is,” Chon countered.

“But it shouldn’t be.”

“Okay, but so what?”

Well, so what is that Ben has taken 99 percent of the violence and dishonesty out of his business, but that other 1 percent is –

– where Chon comes in.

Ben doesn’t need to know what Ben doesn’t need to know.

“You’re the American public,” Chon tells him.

And Chon has ample experience with that.

The third corner of this triangle is O (short for Ophelia) a free spirit not too far removed from the manic pixie dream girl template – if that template can stretch to include a manic pixie dream girl who’s a shopping-obsessed, sexually voracious, drug-munching layabout.  She loves both Ben and Chon, and both of them love her, and, in a clever twist, there’s no romantic rivalry.  It’s an idyllic little situation they’ve got going for them, making money hand over fist and drifting from day to day in a haze that may or may not (but usually does) involve weed.  And the occasional threesome.

This is all well and good until the Baja Cartel contacts Ben and Chon and lets them know they’re taking over the duo’s trade.  When Ben and Chon tell them they just want out, full stop, the Cartel (in the form of Elena the matriarch and Lado her right-hand goon) kidnap O and tell Ben and Chon they’ll either work for the Cartel for three years (maintaining their current client base and profits) or they’ll kill O.  Ben finagles a deal where they can buy O’s freedom for $20 million (an estimate of what they’d make for the Cartel in three years), if they can come up with the scratch.

For Chon, it’s a simple equation:

Chon divides the world into two categories of people:

Him, Ben, and O

Everybody Else.

He’d do anything for Ben and O.

For Ben and O he’d do anything to Everybody Else.

With this in mind, and realizing that A) they can’t leave O with the Cartel for three years,  and B) they don’t have $20 million, Ben and Chon make the only reasonable choice: use Chon’s military expertise to start hitting the Cartel’s drop houses and stealing their money which they’ll then launder to buy O’s freedom.

(In Winslow’s hands, it makes perfect sense.)

What follows is a brutal, inexorable battle of wills and wits between Ben and Chon and the Cartel.  It doesn’t necessarily tread new ground – part of the conflict is watching the generally peaceful Ben descend into savagery (notice the title) – but Winslow renders it new through the sheer dexterity of his prose.

It does get a little too self-consciously nudge nudge wink wink at times – O befriends one of her Cartel captors, who asks her to friend him on Facebook when she’s released – but it generally fits the knowing smirk that Winslow brings to a story of human brutality that could easily sink into unrelenting bleakness.

The whole thing is, as dark as it gets, consistently fun and undeniably exhilarating.  I know there are some who would dismiss Savages on that basis alone, but I have a sneaking suspicion that even though it’s only January, Savages will be one of the best books I read all year.


Current listening:

Matt kill

Matt Berry – Kill the Wolf


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s