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Busting borders: the gut-punch fiction of Don Winslow

Author Don Winslow at the 2019 Toronto International Festival of Authors.

The opening chapter in Don Winslow’s 2010 novel Savages reads, in its entirety, “Fuck you.”

This should provide everything one needs to know about the American author’s fiction: it’s audacious, aggressive, energetic, and – something not always mentioned in relation to Winslow’s writing – stylistically astute.

In conversation with Winslow at the opening event for the 40th anniversary of the Toronto International Festival of Authors on Thursday, October 24, Canadian writer Linwood Barclay said of Savages, “That book is like free-form poetry. It’s a completely, totally different style, unlike any book I’ve ever read.” Barclay captures something about Winslow’s prose that often goes missing: it’s literariness. As his career has progressed, the individual novels – including his recent trilogy about drugs on the U.S.–Mexico border and The Force, a sprawling, operatic 2017 novel set among the cops and criminals (sometimes one and the same) who people the New York City police department – have got longer and more complex on the level of plot, but a fidelity to highly exacting, carefully executed technique remains. (One thinks of comparisons to the great American stylists of the thriller genre such as Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy: Winslow is in that category.)

Perhaps this is one reason Winslow is quick to disavow the lazy distinction between genre writing and so-called literary writing. “I was getting tired of people – most of whom were not crime novelists – telling us what the crime novel should be,” Winslow said. “And giving us all these categories that we’re supposed to fit into. Are we hardboiled or softboiled? Are we a cozy or a procedural? Are we a thriller, and people are giving you the rules about thrillers: well, it can’t be a thriller unless your character is in jeopardy on page one. Where do they get these rules? Who went up to this literary Mount Sinai and came back with these tablets?”

Winslow credits his frustration with these attempts at categorization for what he calls the “temper tantrum” that is Savages and its prequel, 2012’s Kings of Cool. Though anyone who has read the border trilogy – beginning with The Power of the Dog (2005), continuing in The Cartel (2015), and concluding in The Border (2019) – will recognize a powerhouse style at work.

Open one of Winslow’s books to virtually any random page and prepare to be confronted with writing that is as sleek and unobtrusive as it is brutal and violent. This, from The Cartel:

Eddie tells the Salvadorans to go in through the back. They’re eager – they have their own to pay back now. And it’s not pistols this time – it’s AKs and AR-15s – they’re not taking a chance on being outgunned.

The Salvadorans move down the alley toward the back. Two minutes later Eddie hears shots and screams. Segura comes out the front door blasting, the girls behind him, wobbling on their high heels, terrified.

The get into the Jeep.

Eddie shoots the tires out.

Segura starts the engine and throws the Jeep into gear but Eddie and Los Negros go Bonnie and Clyde on it.

The Jeep rattles like a jonesing junkie.

The border trilogy takes a clear-eyed, complex look at the ongoing U.S. war on drugs, telling a complicated, overlapping narrative from multiple perspectives: politicians and DEA agents, Mexicans and Guatemalan migrants, drug runners and drug users, the powerful and the indigent. Taken together, the three books make up a towering edifice of American fiction, addressing head-on many of the problems plaguing the republic in the early years of the 21st century. The final book in the trilogy even features a corrupt, impulsive president who bears a striking similarity to the current occupant of the Oval Office.

The trilogy addresses the war on drugs, though this is a term that Winslow disavows, with good reason. The war on drugs, Winslow argues “is lost the moment you declare it a war. Because you’re creating the very thing you’re trying to stop.”

The amount of research that went into the border trilogy – including hundreds of hours of personal time the author spent with cops and addicts and others affected by the drug trade – is evident throughout the trilogy, as is Winslow’s own careful assessment of the ways in which the attempt to stifle the cross-border drug trade actually causes more problems than it solves.

In private, police officers will advocate legalization – something Winslow says would be political suicide to admit out loud – because of the harm reduction such a move would present. “We send something like $66 billion a year down to Mexico to pay for illegal drugs which destabilizes their society and causes something like 200,000 drug-related murders – the most violent conflict on the American continent since the American Civil War.”

At home in the U.S., Winslow is equally cognizant of the toll that drug trafficking takes on users and people who find themselves caught up in the industrial penal system, often for the crime of being poor or suffering mental or physical anguish (one only takes drugs, Winslow points out, if one is in some sort of pain). “Our jails have become the de facto treatment centres and mental hospitals in the United States,” Winslow says. “Eighty-something percent of the people who are checked into a jail on any given night test positive for drugs and/or have a psychotic issue. And so the police forces and the jails are doing things they were never intended to do and that they really can’t do.”

What is most apparent about Winslow in person is his compassion. His books are often orgies of violence and mayhem, but the author himself presents as soft-spoken and authentically concerned with the suffering of the underclasses, immigrants, and the less fortunate. His sympathy with the downtrodden is matched by his fury at the wealthy and powerful – politicians, arms manufacturers, prison administrators – who get rich off the back of the drug trade.

And yet he has spent close to two decades immersed in the subject because it is something he can’t escape, as a person or as a writer. “If you are an American crime writer, it’s been the central fact of American crime now for five decades,” Winslow says. “Where I grew up, guys were shooting heroin in the boys’ room of the high school.”

It is perhaps this closeness to the material that forces the author to present his characters and situations absolutely honestly, which results in books saturated with violence – often sexualized violence and often perpetrated on children. In conversation, Winslow confesses to finding much of the material in the trilogy deeply disturbing, but also says that every incidence of violence in the novels is based in reality. Though the author also admits to toning some things down, or leaving them out altogether, since the reality is simply too horrific to capture on the page.

This is ultimately what rescues Winslow’s books from gratuitousness and what helps give them their fevered momentum. “I like writing about the max,” Winslow told Barclay. “I like writing about ultimate kinds of things. And drug sales and drug trafficking are the max.”

This too could serve as a fitting assessment of Winslow’s work, both in the border trilogy and throughout his career as a crime writer: he takes it to the max. Readers are all the better for it.

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