Of all the blows delivered by Don Winslow’s Cartel trilogy, none may be as devastating as the timing of “The Border,” its stunner of a conclusion. Though Winslow cannot have engineered all of this 14 years ago when he started this series, his sweeping new novel concerns subjects that put it right on the culture’s front burner: the Mexican-American border, the handling of migrant children, the opioid crisis and some barely fictionalized claims about how foreign money has bought influence at the highest level of the U.S. government.
The book’s title, “The Border,” refers to both physical and moral barriers. Winslow is well aware that both that and its cover image, which depicts a razor-wire-topped wall spreading across a desert landscape, are politically loaded. “Loaded phrases, like loaded guns, are more interesting, aren’t they?” Winslow said to Entertainment Weekly in September. As for the book’s depiction of fiercely partisan American politics, including its treatment of characters who are unmistakable versions of the current president and his son-in-law: “I know this book is going to make some people angry. I can live with that.”
Even though the first installment of this trilogy was named “The Power of the Dog,” after a biblical intimation of evil (“Deliver my soul from the sword; my love from the power of the dog,” Psalms 22:20), it only hinted at the magnitude and ferocity of what was to come. That opening novel now looks like the series’ relatively innocent prologue — and it is as blade-sharp, violent, pulse-quickening and reportorially shocking as the pinnacle of some lesser series might be.
“The Power of the Dog” is, in brief, about the first decades that bind the destinies of Art Keller, a Vietnam veteran and later D.E.A. agent, and Adán Barrera, a young Mexican who will go on to achieve the most dizzying heights of power. The book begins in a burning Mexican poppy field in 1975 (“Only in hell, Art Keller thinks, do flowers bloom fire”) and leaves Keller among more poppies in 2004. Many unspeakable acts happen in between, melding the personal with the political (Iran-contra). It is all rendered unputdownable by Winslow’s unrivaled skill at his game.
The second book, “The Cartel” (2015), remains the heart of this series, and not only because of its central chronological position. It cements the ambition and the “Godfather” caliber of this whole multigenerational undertaking, and finds the major figures at their most fully formed. Some of it takes place, as we now learn with hindsight, in what were practically idyllic times for the Sinaloa cartel, a real-life cartel run by the fictional Barrera, regardless of his situation vis-à-vis imprisonment. Inside or out, he called the shots — and shots were the most merciful form of punishment meted out to this group’s vicious enemies. As the Sinaloa operation devolved into monstrous war with rivals, counting journalists among its many casualties, mere brutality became a distant memory.
A surprising array of characters from the earlier books reappears in “The Border.” One of them is a young boy who, in “The Cartel,” was seen kicking around a very bizarre soccer ball (an image readers of that book will never forget, no matter how hard they try). Keller and his new wife, Marisol Cisneros, the onetime mayor of Juarez, decide to try to help him.
It is 2012 when “The Border” starts, smoke still rising from the colossal battle that dethroned Barrera for good. A major plot point is the internecine horror that descends after the kingpin’s demise. The fight for succession lasts through the entire length of the novel.
Winslow means to journey deep into a new kind of hell this time, and to suggest that his readers recognize the sensation. This is a book for dark, rudderless times, an immersion into fear and chaos. It conjures more lawlessness, dishonesty, conniving, brutality and power mania than both of the earlier books put together.
Because of that chaos, it might have benefited from an indexed cast of characters. But Winslow can’t provide one. For one thing, it would be a spoiler. You just have to watch these miscreants as they drop. The Barrera heirs, would-be successors and arriviste rivals — a whole indulgent younger generation named Los Hijos, characterized by wretched excess and suicidal stupidity — make for countless shifting allegiances, fake names, dispensable henchmen and other complications.
Along with the battle to succeed Barrera, the plot involves Keller’s becoming head of the D.E.A. despite his strong distrust of the federal government and its approach to solving America’s drug problems. In order to do that, Keller sets himself up as a kind of independent investigator, which has a current resonance, too. The book makes Winslow’s clear case for why everything we’re told about Mexican drug imports is wrong: why New York is so vital to the country’s illegal-drug distribution, and even production; how Wall Street money and drug money are intertwined; and how money laundering intersects with businesses like real estate.
Enter Jason Lerner, a very Jared Kushner-like character, and his father-in-law, John Dennison. Dennison has Donald Trump’s history, speaks Trump’s own words and has a name that combines two sobriquets (John Barron and David Dennison) that Trump once used while pretending to be his own spokesman.
Winslow describes sting operations with immersive, heart-grabbing intensity. You don’t read these books; you live in them. You come to learn all about what it means for a good cop to go undercover as a bad one; for a black ex-con to be coaxed into the world of high-stakes New York drug dealing because he can reach a market Mexicans can’t; for a Staten Island addict to fall helpless prey to the drug trade’s latest bright idea (a near-lethal burst of fentanyl added to the usual heroin). Each story is personal. But each has huge ramifications in Winslow’s larger scheme.
The single most wrenching subplot involves a 10-year-old Guatemalan boy whose life is all but over, thanks to a system of graft that makes prostitutes out of women and thugs out of men. The boy is not described cheerlessly; Winslow doesn’t write in that register. The child is amazingly hardy. But the book shows the single day, the single stroke of fate, that may determine his entire future if the systemic corruption that pervades “The Border” has its way.
About making prostitutes out of women: Let’s just say that Winslow didn’t invent the horrors of the drug world, and assume he’s presenting a version of what he’s seen and heard about them. The words used around gender and race in this book are frequently ugly, and in these times that calls for a warning.
Last and never least with Winslow: the matter of languages. He is fluent in many of them, and “The Border” once again shows off those talents. There’s slang, of course. Why have a snitch sing when he can be “doing his best Freddie Mercury imitation for D.E.A. right now”? There is cop. There is politician, hit man, high roller. There is psycho — always a favorite, and always handy in the circles in which these books have traveled. “We’re soul mates,” one character says to another. “In the sense that neither of us has one.”
The border ends with another idea about the soul. “There is no wall that divides the human soul between its best impulses and its worst.” Two classic trilogies, “The Godfather” and now this one, are built upon it.