I have a literary crush on a novel I just met titled THE KINGS OF COOL. As the cover proudly but in understated style informs us, it is the prequel to Don Winslow's SAVAGES, and the timing of its publication is wisely placed to capitalize on the July 6th release of the film adaptation of SAVAGES.
"You’ll love every word of it, from the cheerfully obscene opening to its final pages. I do have a quibble, though: the title. THE KINGS OF COOL? Nah. There is only one. And his name is Don Winslow."
THE KINGS OF COOL is the secret origin story of Ben, Chon and O, not only of how they came to be together (and its consequences), but also who they are and where they come from. Remember that Jimmy Castor song that starts out with the words, “We’re gonna go back…waaay back”? That is what this book does in places, bouncing back and forth between Laguna Beach in 2005 and 1967, and several points in between, when the three friends were not even gleams in their parents’ eyes. It is a deep, dark and hilarious ride that traces the tragic rise and fall of the drug culture, connecting the dots on the timeline between free tacos and cocaine. It also pulls back the curtain to demonstrate that the true power isn’t in drugs; it’s in turf. And the biggest lesson of all? The actions of the present have ramifications in the future, guaranteed.
The main storyline is simple enough. Ben and Chon have the market cornered on the best marijuana in Laguna Beach, with vertical marketing in place. A shadowy figure is initially personified only by an enforcer named Duane Crowe, who is better known as “OGR” (for reasons that quickly become obvious). OGR informs Ben that he needs to start making percentage payments if he and Chon are going to continue to do business; Ben tells the guy to…well, he tells him no. But Chon is deployed to Afghanistan and is unaware that there is a significant problem that Ben at least initially is incapable of handling.
Ben and Chon easily could have been called Yin and Yang, given their different views on such things as violence as a tool for fixing difficult people. Ben, a nominal pacifist, enlists the aid of the badly bent DEA agent, Dennis Cain. Think (and this is no slam on John Travolta, who plays Cain in Savages) of a younger Dennis Farina, with nothing but brutally funny lines to deliver every time he opens his mouth. Don’t think that Chon is out of the book forever, though. He comes back quickly enough (and, in a sense, never really leaves) with a skill set that is partially instinctive and partially acquired, and an extremely dangerous attitude that holds him in good stead, particularly near the end of the book, where a hostage situation in Mexico goes totally bottoms up, and Chon and Ben discover who is trying to put them out of business.
And let us not forget O, whose relationship with Chon goes waaaay back, and who, as readers of SAVAGES knows, is too much for one guy --- or even two --- to handle on any sort of relation level. O discovers some things about her ancestry as well (no thanks to her mommy dearest) that tie her to Ben and Chon in ways she never dreamed existed. No, not that --- but close.
Winslow breaks rules in THE KINGS OF COOL. The narrative jumps all over the place, back and forth in time, person and viewpoint. He also occasionally switches to a movie script format during longer portions of dialogue, just to make sure that the reader is paying attention. It doesn’t make any difference. You’ll love every word of it, from the cheerfully obscene opening to its final pages. I do have a quibble, though: the title. THE KINGS OF COOL? Nah. There is only one. And his name is Don Winslow.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 22, 2012