Book review: The combatants from 'The Power of the Dog' return in brilliant sequel
July 12, 2015 12:00 AM
"The Cartel" by Don Winslow
Don Winslow, follows up "The Power of the Dog" with "The Cartel."
By Carlo Wolff
Don Winslow affirms his status as one of the best American writers with “The Cartel,” his nightmarish novel about the Mexican-American drug wars. Reading “The Cartel” puts your mental boots on ground you’d rather not visit. It’s a long, desperate book so savage it can numb.
Some scenes are so wet with carnage you might think Islamic State militants went to school in Nuevo Laredo, Juarez — or Peten, a Guatemalan region with a bloody Mayan past that seems to shadow the rotten fecundity of the drug trade. The Islamic State group has nothing in brutality or media smarts on the Zetas and the Gente Nueva, two of the narco-gangster militias that figure so heavily in this book.
Mr. Winslow went high profile five years ago with “Savages,” a brilliant if thin stoner thriller so sparely written it’s anorexic. But “Savages,” which deals with the softer drugs, is a musical, where “The Cartel” is a hard-drug opera — or, perhaps, a symphony.
By Don Winslow Knopf ($27.95).
A sequel to Mr. Winslow’s similarly ambitious 2005 novel, “The Power of the Dog,” this, too, stars the ambivalent DEA agent Art Keller and his nemesis, the reflective Mexican drug lord Adan Barrera. These seasoned, hard-bitten men cannot do without each other, embodying the relationship between the United States and Mexico.
“The Cartel” is devilishly plotted and exhaustingly vivid. It covers the years 2004 to 2012, with a wan, despairing epilogue set in 2014. It plays out in order, Mexico, the United States and Guatemala, effectively conflating the city with the wild, reinvigorating the concept of the urban jungle.
Redolent with authority, told in many voices and from many points of view, “The Cartel,” as its title suggests, is all of us, consumed by consumption. Drugs, guns, turf wars, bacchanalian tableaux marrying sex and violence, cruelty beyond lurid, the role drugs play in politics — it’s all here.
With so many players and so many different kinds of turf, it’s brutally complicated. All flows through Keller, a man of a hard-earned moral compass who carefully chooses whom to love and whom to kill. Loyalty is a key concept here, as is nobility.
“With the exception of his marriage and the years spent raising his children, Art Keller was pretty much a loner, an outsider,” Mr. Winslow writes. “The son of an Anglo father who didn’t want a half-Mexican kid, he always had one foot in each world, but never both feet in either. Raised in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, he had to fight for his half-gringo side; at UCLA, he had to prove he wasn’t there on an affirmative action pass.”
Mr. Winslow’s style, efficient and undeniable as a bullet, keeps you hanging on through the most labyrinthine plot twists. And there are plot twists. “The Cartel” is ultimately about economics and politics. It’s about the war on drugs, yes, but it’s also about a deeper, more disturbing war, the war on the poor. And it’s about complementary appetites, as Mexicans deliver the drugs to people in the United States who are slavering with demand.
Mr. Winslow is an equal opportunity writer, giving women and men equal weight and power. While the key arc of the plot line is the thrust and parry of Keller and Barrera, the heart of the book is such women as Keller’s sweetheart Marisol, a doctor dedicated to stanching Mexico’s blood flow; Magda, Barrera’s deepest, most complex and tragic partner; and Ana, a journalist who, with her colleague Pablo, keeps the sometimes disconnected notions of journalism and truth on the front burner no matter how wounded and perilous her city of Juarez becomes.
The media, too, star in “The Cartel,” suggesting that in Mexico, at least, they’re under far more pressure than in the States. Toward the end, Pablo, a reporter for Juarez’s largest newspaper, finds himself trapped by the Zetas, forced to reveal the identity of a blogger called “Wild Child” who publishes videos and stories of Zeta atrocities. These blogs make the Zetas uncomfortable, though they don’t create anything like a Zeta conscience.
One of Mr. Winslow’s strengths is characterization, be it of Keller, the world-weary Barrera, endangered journalists like Pablo and Ana, or the self-made Don Pedro, a Tamaulipas land owner of aristocratic bearing whom the Zetas attempt to bully into submission. Don Pedro, a thinker, a reader, a man of class and spine, does not survive. Keller finds him too late.
“Mexico is a country that produces legends larger than life, and Keller knows that songs will be sung about Don Pedro Alejo de Castillo — not trashy narcocorridos, but a genuine corrido. “A song for a hero.”
Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.
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