By Janet Maslin
June 18, 2015
On the opening page of “The Cartel,”Don Winslow mixes a baby’s cry with the sound of a helicopter’s blades in a predawn raid. That’s reminiscent of his 2005 novel, “The Power of the Dog,” which also used a baby on its opening page. “The baby is dead in his mother’s arms,” that book began, and went on to describe the horrific image of a bullet-riddled Madonna and child in Mexico. It was the first step into what would become Mr. Winslow’s drug war version of “The Godfather,” with all the grand ambition that implies.
“The Cartel” is a big, sprawling, ultimately stunning crime tableau that can be read as a stand-alone. But the ideal approach, if you can make the leap and commitment, is to read the two books in sequence as a Part 1 and a Part 2. Together, the two span nearly 1,200 pages and 40 years and present a multifaceted view of what is, in Mr. Winslow’s opinion, America’s longest war: the war on drugs. “The Power of the Dog” covers the first 30 years, during which the war was fought on a much more intimate scale than it was from 2004 to 2014, the period covered by “The Cartel.”
Though the two books are filled with equally vicious reality-based events, “The Cartel” reflects the grim latter-day shift from traditional gangster tactics to those of global terrorism. The new book’s cartels have their own private, monstrously media-savvy armies that reflect the basic thinking of Al Qaeda. As one of Mr. Winslow’s characters puts it: “What good is an atrocity if no one knows you did it?”
“The Cartel” picks up at a relatively easy entrance point in this crowded and complicated story. The first book’s main characters, Art Keller and Adán Barrera, who met young and went on to become a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and a Sonora cartel kingpin, remain sworn enemies. Much of what happened in the first book guarantees that they will stay that way. One, as a private joke, has sworn to himself that he will put poppies on the other’s grave.
As “The Cartel” begins, Barrera still holds court and runs an empire with a mannerliness that recalls Corleone-style noblesse oblige. But he does it from inside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, where, at 50, he faces multiple lifetime sentences. Even the quick synopsis of what Keller did to trick Barrera onto United States soil is enough to justify the undying enmity between them. They have no intention of ending their grudge match, just as Barrera has no intention of staying incarcerated for very long. (Certain details, like how the Barrera clan celebrates Christmas in prison, comes from Mr. Winslow’s extensive research into real figures in the drug war.)
“The Cartel” has so many moving parts that there is reason to envy Keller the Christmas he spends all alone, eating a frozen dinner, studying the spreadsheets and background data the book never provides in consolidated form. There are so many murderous grudges and so many shifting gang allegiances that parts of the book require close attention; you may even find yourself backing up a time or two.
What is never confusing, though, is the degree of vengefulness and corruption that has been bred into some of the cartel’s soldiers at shockingly early ages. And since the command of choice here is to inflict pain as frighteningly as possible, there are no scarier words a captive can hear than “you’re next.”
Mr. Winslow, a cult favorite for many reasons, has written about a different milieu — California’s surf and drug culture — much more stylishly (“The Dawn Patrol”) and conversationally (“Savages”) than he writes here. “The Cartel,” like “The Power of the Dog,” can be better appreciated for its gritty, gasp-inducing knowledge of true crime’s brutal extremes, and for its unflinching awareness of what Mr. Winslow calls “evil beyond the possibility of redemption.”
Even tougher than the outright violence is the slow destruction of idealists — be they in journalism, medicine, intellectual life, government or just in search of a more lawful Mexican society — who think they can escape the long shadow of this ugliness, and who one after another are proved horribly wrong. “The Cartel,” which involves graphic beheading and dismembering, is dedicated to a long list of journalists who have been killed or have “disappeared” in the Mexican drug wars.
But there are high spirits and comic relief to be found in the way that much of the drug lords’ and want-to-bes’ self-images come from American popular culture. Many of the characters seem to think of themselves à la “The Godfather,” to the point where “Al Pacino” can be used as a verb, however badly. To “Al Pacino him” seems to denote a revenge killing in a restaurant, even if the crucial gun-hidden-in-the-bathroom part is skipped to save time. To become a famous gangster means to have a movie made about you, although one of the most appealingly thickheaded killers here doesn’t understand why he needs to be punished at the story’s end.
Mr. Winslow, who has rightly been compared to James Ellroy (and praised by Mr. Ellroy) for his ability to capture an entire crime culture in the sweep of “The Cartel,” leaves room for at least one smart, interesting woman to play the drug lords’ game better than the men do. But as in all great crime fiction, the game is as damning as it is seductive and not conducive to happily-ever-afters. “The Cartel” culminates in a near-symphonic array of lethal coups de grace, written with such hallucinatory intensity that the whole book seems to have turned into a synchronized fireworks display. And still Mr. Winslow adds one last, hellish image that “takes the freakin’ cake.” To make sure this story is something you won’t forget.
By Don Winslow
Illustrated. 616 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.