The Cartel by Don Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have to wonder if watching Oliver Stone's manipulation of Savages wasn't a game-changer for author Don Winslow. In Stone's hands, it became quickly obvious to viewers that any concern for the fates of the American protagonists at the centre of this drug-deal-gone-bad caper was almost comically misplaced. The Yanks were typical kids -- in their mid-20s, maybe, but acting out like early adolescents in a gated community while the parents are on vacation. Brooding, petulant, narcissistic, self-indulgent on any front that occurred to them -- um, were we supposed to care?
The Mexican heavies, on the other hand -- what was going on with them? Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro played their respective roles with a ruthless cool that hinted rather chillingly at the desperation roiling beneath the veneer. The more we saw of them, the more we wanted to know. They seemed to hold the actual moral centre to the story, and yet they were the villains.
Then again, I haven't read the novel -- it could be Winslow was well on his way to blowing into flame the moral heat that takes hold of anyone with a little familiarity of how the so-called "Drug Wars" are conducted outside the borders of the United States.
The Cartel is all about "the Mexican heavies." There is a single American protagonist -- Art Keller -- whom the reader cares about only to the degree that Keller learns to care about particular victims of the Drug Wars. And wow, are there ever victims -- scores of them. Their particular stories, within the larger story (morally-compromised Good Guy chases morally-haunted Bad Guy), are filled in with a deft and sympathetic touch. As the novel progresses, so does the body-count -- into the hundreds of thousands.
The litany of the dead does, at certain points, over-burden the narrative velocity. But how could it not, unless the author was finally indifferent to the scene he strives to describe? Winslow is clearly anything but indifferent, and that seething, personally invested indignation is what sets this work head and shoulders above his earlier fare.
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