SAVAGES by Don Winslow has received some wonderful pre-publication publicity due to its being tapped for film adaptation by Oliver Stone even before the first tree was chopped to lay the book to paper. Please do not wait for the movie to read the book.
The plot and execution of the novel is simple enough, from its cheerfully obscene opening words to its apocalyptic, nihilistic ending. Two guys have made a fortune on the development and sale of two new strains of marijuana. The Baja Cartel wants to take over their business, handling distribution and sale while the two entrepreneurs continue to grow and harvest. It’s a fairly easy, connect-the-dots storyline.
The brilliance of SAVAGES and the genius of Winslow lies in the story’s fleshed-out, true-to-life characters. The two brains behind the primo weed are Ben and Chon. Ben is the brains of the business, in terms of the development of the new marijuana strains and the marketing of them. Chon is the enforcer, the ex-ops guy who handles the wet work that goes with the territory that these kinds of businesses drive through on a daily basis. Both are very good at what they do. Closer than brothers, they share the affection of Ophelia --- known as “O” for more than one reason --- who is simultaneously their strength and weakness.
All goes well until a faction of the Baja Cartel approaches them with a non-negotiable business deal that is more or less the modern-day equivalent of indentured servitude. Chon responds in the only way he can --- that cheerfully obscene, all-purpose greeting and response and exclamation --- resulting in the Baja Cartel ratcheting things up a notch or three by kidnapping O and threatening to return her in pieces unless Ben and Chon respond to the offer they shouldn’t refuse. That’s when things really get interesting.
Winslow takes what appears to be an unfixable position and turns it around a bit, playing on the foibles of the aforementioned characters and a number of other ones who you’ll have to read the book to meet, folks of a sort who you are familiar with in real life whether you know it or not. Ben, Chon and O are of course the most interesting. They are simple enough on the surface but defy easy explanation or categorization. And along the way, Winslow demonstrates with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer that anything you do to resolve the drug problem will only make it worse in one way or another. There really aren’t any good guys in SAVAGES, not even Ben, who diverts a healthy part of his time and ill-gotten gain to soft-hearted and, yes, soft-headed social projects. Chon? He gets the fact that giving in to an enemy, even when it is practical, will be interpreted as a sign of weakness. But he is working for a drug dealer. O? Please. But the three of them are sympathetic characters nonetheless, from first page to unfortunate last.
Don Winslow is a dark, immensely talented puppy whose refusal to lighten up has arguably cost him the extent of the popular acclaim he truly deserves while adding to the richness and reality of his art. While SAVAGES may not be the book that makes him a household name, it will resonate brilliantly in the part of the house where everyone is scared to go. And that's going to happen whether the movie does or not.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011