Savages – Don Winslow

For the last couple of years or so, Don Winslow has been one of my favorite writers.  He writes about surfers, surfing, California and the border drug war between California and Mexico and ALL of these things I find endlessly fascinating (learning how to surf is on my so-called “bucket list” ) – I have a special fondness for books that take place in California, feature surfers and deal with the Baja drug cartel (hi, T. Jefferson Parker. hi, Kem Nunn), and Don Winslow does this genre as well or better than anyone I’ve read. 

I laughed out loud throughout The Dawn Patrol, and staunchly defended the novel when my father-in-law looked down his nose at it and told me I was reading trash (of course, this man also thinks Annie Proulx is trash, so what are you going to do?), I rooted for mobster Frankie in The Winter of Frankie Machine, I was blown away by the emotional complexity of The Power of the Dog. I was surprised, then, to finish the final pages of Savages, unsure of whether I loved or hated it.


The ending of Savages? Well,  at first I felt so frustrated by it – so cheated  – that I momentarily thought I hated the book.  I had every intention of calling my dad up (who recommended Winslow to me a couple of years ago, and finished this book two weeks before I did) to holler about how unbelievably frustrating the conclusion of Savages is – but instead, I found myself thinking about it.  I found myself thinking about it, alot.

Savages centers around the lives of two men who grow pot for a living – Ben and Chon – and their friend, O.  Without giving too much of the novel away, the pot Ben and Chon grows is so spectacular it attracts the attention of a Mexican drug cartel, which wants to essentially take over Ben and Chon’s distribution.  When Ben and Chon turn the “offer” down,  the cartel kidnaps O – the rest of the novel is dedicated to Ben and Chon’s rescue quest. It’s pretty difficult to write too much more without giving basically the whole point of the book away, but suffice it to say there isn’t a traditional happy ending. And, as someone who loves a traditional happy ending, I found that pretty frustrating. Until I thought about it.

This is what I realized:  underneath all the snazzy language play (of which there is a lot – underneath all the sex (of which there is also a lot) – underneath all the California glamour – Winslow is making an argument. Perhaps he is making several arguments, but one in particular stood out to me  – that we are all (or, at least many of us, are)  complicit in the drug war happening right now in Mexico.  He makes this argument eloquently and effectively through the character Ben. Ben is like so many pot-loving people you may have come across in your life…maybe a little too into pot overall but generally a peace-loving dude who just wants to spread the wealth, so to speak – he sees absolutely no correlation between his particular kind of drug-dealing and the kind of drug-dealing coming from Mexico.  

 It is this thinking that gets him and his friends in in all sorts of trouble, and it really made me think…while I don’t smoke pot (I mean, have you met me? One puff and I’d be convinced the cops were at my door) I know and love lots of people who do – none are quite so into the whole pot thing as Ben is but I’ve met people like that, too and their pot smoking does seem to be completely separate from the drug violence happening in Mexico – but really, it’s not.  Pot should be legalized, they argue. Pot is less damaging than alcohol, they say.  Pot is all about the love, they declare – and it’s easy to agree with those arguments, or at least to admit that pot smokers don’t seem to do grievous harm and in places where it is at least medically legal, pot does a great deal of help.  But the fact of the matter is smoking pot is, for better or worse, illegal in the U.S. and by smoking it, however harmless an act it may seem,  you are arguably contributing the growing violence of the drug wars.

When I write it out like this, it doesn’t make quite as much sense as it does in my head- so I need people to go read this book so we can talk about it! Go, do it – before the movie comes out – Oliver Stone is directing and reuniting the cast of Pulp Fiction, seriously.  So, go read and come back and tell me if I’m off my rocker or not. Or, you know, wait for my next post, which will either be a review of Chicken Delicious (an actual recipe I actually made) or a recap of my rather disastrous single-momming it weekend. Or maybe both.



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4 Responses to Savages – Don Winslow

  1. shoreacres says:

    Well, the book doesn’t sound very appealing to me, mostly because Ben and Chon sound like perfect idiots – holdovers from the Haight-Ashbury days, when the hippies and their wannabes saw Weed as a harmless little diversion. (Disclaimer: Yes, I’ve smoked a joint or two. The only thing I got from the experience was a pounding headache, and I don’t know what all the fuss is about.)

    Now, I live in a border state, and like anyone with their eyes open and a willingness to pay attention, I’ve learned a few things. I’ve seen a shoot-out between rival drug gangs on a Houston freeway, at 60 miles an hour. I know a rancher who found a decapitated body on his land. I’ve been stopped by the DEA. I have a friend with a friend whose ranch hands were fired on. While I’m still willing to go to South Texas, I stay away from certain areas. Most of my friends who work or live there are armed. If I lived there, I would be, too.

    Whatever anyone thinks of marijuana – it’s ok, it’s not ok, it’s better than alcohol, it’s worse, it ought to be available for medicinal use – all of that is pretty much beside the point. The cartels are full of people who split their time between being vicious thugs and darned good marketers.They know how to get people hooked, and they know that people who would recoil in horror from crack or meth often are more than willing to enjoy a little “social sharing” of the gentle weed. And they’re more than happy to supply it, through the tunnels into Cali, the deserts of Arizona and the back roads of south Texas ranches.

    There are some unhappy truths in this world, and here are some of them:

    (1) When it comes to the cartels, there are no happy endings.
    (2) The drug war no longer is just in Mexico.
    (3) The drug lords will do anything – and I mean ANYTHING – to increase their market share, and their drug of choice is whatever sells.

    I guess what I’d recommend is that anyone who wants to read Savages should skim one of the blogs that keeps an eye on the drug violence, on both sides of the border. One that’s in English and a bit discretionary in their photos is Borderland Beat.

  2. Courtney says:

    Shoreacres – we talked about this offline but I just wanted to say your input is incredibly valuable. I checked out the blog you recommended and I don’t think I could be a regular reader – that is some pretty horrific stuff. I honestly can’t believe more people aren’t talking about this…but it does seem there is just so.much. to talk about these days…

  3. jenny says:

    i need help i’m confused do they all die ???? does chon and O overdose or does Ben only die ?

  4. Watermelonisha says:

    I’m really not entirely sure what really happened in the end of the movie… there was a double ending the first one they all died because they overdosed on morphine, but in the second one they got away? what I was extremely unsure about was if she was in Africa with Ben and Chon or if they went their separate ways…….

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