‘There’s just something about the idea of having your head lopped off that really gets to people.’ – Savages, by Don Winslow

May 10, 2011 at 1:52 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

   Savages is written in the kind of staccato,  punchy prose that I usually avoid. Add to that the full measure of explicit sex and even more explicit violence, and you may well ask, why is  she reading this book? Fact is, Don Winslow was originally slated to fill the role of Toastmaster at the upcoming Crimefest. His books have been receiving great reviews, so I figured that since I was going to see the author in person, now was the time to read one of his novels. I chose Savages, the latest, partly because it’s substantially shorter that his other books. (I know, I really have to stop eliminating books from my to-read list solely due to their length. Gad sakes – I might have missed the sublime Wolf Hall!)

A quintessential novel of Southern California – “SoCal,” Savages was a wild ride, for sure. The main action involves a surprisingly appealing trio of drug dealers. Ben is a brilliant, deeply educated environmentalist who uses the extremely lucrative drug business to fund his high minded concerns. Former Navy SEAL Chon is street smart and savvy, a veteran of this criminal underworld. And Ophelia is the young woman they share, a free spirit who lives with her mother, a woman who is hooked on the usual California cocktail of self-help and self-actualization schemes and whose idea of a great gift for her daughter is to finance a “boob job” that Ophelia was unaware she needed and did not especially want. (She tells her mother rather wistfully that she’d been hoping for a bicycle.)

As so often happens with material like this, when it’s being handled by a genuine talent like Don Winslow, the sex and violence are interspersed with bursts of hilarity and the occasional apt and ironic observation on the vagary of human nature – and sometimes, something more:

We had for a brief time a civilization that clung to a thin strip of land between the ocean and the desert.

Water was our problem, too much of it on one side too little on the other, but it didn’t stop us. We built houses, highways, hotels, shopping malls, condo complexes, paring lots, parking structures, schools, and stadiums….

We built temples to our fantasies–film studios, amusement parks, crystal cathedrals, megachurches–and flocked to them.

We went to the beach, rode the waves, and poured our waste into the water we said we loved.

We reinvented ourselves every day, remade our culture, locked ourselves in gated communities, we ate healthy food, we gave up smoking, we lifted our faces while avoiding the sun, we had our skin peeled, out lines removed, our fat sucked away like our unwanted babies, we defied aging and death.

Wee made gods of  wealth and health.

A religion of narcissism.

In the end, we worshipped only ourselves.

In the end, it wasn’t enough.

Well, gosh…

This intensely bitter and lyrical effusion, which, trust me, seemed to burst onto the page from nowhere – but not really, given the insanely perverse universe  described by the author…at any rate, it reminded me of two things. First, the explanation for the nature of the population of San Francisco in the late 1800’s offered by Lord Bryce in The American Commonwealth:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union….

That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

A different time and place, I know, but it’s that part about the wilderness of the time passing into the soul of the people that somehow resonates.

Secondly, I’m reminded of the great tradition of California crime writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and my personal favorite, Ross MacDonald. I believe that Don Winslow belongs in that line.

Shortly after I finished this novel, we were informed that Don Winslow would be unable to attend Crimefest. I was sorry to hear that, and glad that I had read Savages.

Don Winslow

A film of Savages is in the works, to be directed by Oliver Stone.

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