“You don’t read these books; you live in them.”
– Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Most novels are not good.
They’re usually bland and predictable, populated by zero-dimensional characters that are capital G – Good or capital B – Bad, with plots that can be seen a hundred pages away with saccharine endings. They have no basis or reflection of real life.
Don Winslow’s Cartel Trilogy – The Power of the Dog (2005); The Cartel (2015); The Border (2019) – could not be more different and, therefore, is some of the best fiction writing of the new century.
The books give time and real estate to dozens, maybe hundreds, of characters in multiple storylines on both sides of the drug business – cartel heads; politicians; hitmen; dealers; cops; addicts; mistresses; children – that span, by the end of the third book, a half-century in the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, and everywhere in between.
Winslow was once a private investigator and that shows, not just because these books are so meticulously researched, but because he is patient with them, letting the tension build and build, culminating in approximately two-thousand pages. They’re also realistic, so much so that they seem too realistic to be factual but are all too real:
“Winslow employs snippets of journalistic fiction to educate his readers about Central American migration, drug distribution, gang culture, money laundering, and more, and splices these threads into multiple story lines.”
The characters are invented, but the groups and the battles are not. The DEA, undercover cops, tortured citizens, brutal torturers, heroin addicts, and clueless bureaucrats all exist. The Sinaloa Cartel is very real and they really do use social media to not only brag, but also to intimidate. There are very thinly-veiled refences to the Iran-Contra Affair as well as former President Donald Trump.
The sheer number of characters is impressive, but what makes them work so well is that Winslow shows the world through their own eyes. The number of people for whom we learn their thoughts and see their point of view is in the double digits, and all of them speak in their own voice. People have said that Elmore Leonard and Tom Wolfe were masters of language, but no one – at least that I’ve ever read – are able to write as believably in so many different dialects as Winslow. He employs slang from all over a hemisphere, from Guatemala to Staten Island, from Mexico to San Diego. Unlike so many writers of his age, his characters don’t speak like a middle-aged white man; they speak like they’re real people.
A new character is introduced three-quarters through the trilogy and, thanks to vivid description and emotive writing, the reader immediately begins rooting for him. These books stay with you because they suck you in and hold you there, like some of the hostages that are described. The stories are brutal but also unforgettable:
“Granular detail and sharp dialogue have made his drug war trilogy propulsive and compelling…The stories unravel broken lives caught in a mesmerizing mosaic fueled by addiction and haunted by bloodshed.”
Janet Maslin of The New York Times has called the books of the Cartel trilogy, “unputdownable,” and that’s a perfect description. You can’t stop reading, but it’s not because it’s a happy story: “There is no joy here. No looking away from the absolute horror of America’s longest-running war — the war on drugs.”
An underrated aspect of Winslow’s writing is how he can remind the reader of what happened in prior books without it feeling like a rerun or copy and paste job. His books are so large and sprawling that when a character returns after a couple hundred pages, it’s nice to have a prompt of whom they are and how they connect to the story.
He’s not flawless – virtually every woman is gorgeous, some sentences are too curt, and there are moments of awkward exposition – but those are tiny quibbles when we’re talking about prose that will not only last beyond the moment, but are likely to actually grow in stature and impact in the future:
“This is all basically Shakespeare. Not Shakespearean, mind you. But Shakespeare. As in, 300 years from now, when our children’s children’s children want to understand the defining conflict of the late 20th and early 21st century — when they want it presented with full lights and fireworks, costumed in gold chains and polo shirts, writ hugely in the way that only fiction can be — there’s a fair chance that this is what they will read.”
How many other current novels could you say that about?
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.