Review: Savages

This review was originally posted on Buried Under Books.

Don Winslow
Simon & Schuster, July 2010
ARC from Creatures ‘n Crooks.

Every great company has an origin story, and here is Ben and Chonny’s:

They’re hanging out at the beach, Chon on extended leave between his two hitches, and they’re playing volleyball on the court next to the Hotel Laguna.

Ben and Chon are the kings of the court, and why not? Two tall, lanky, athletic guys who make a great team. Ben is the setter who thinks of the game as chess, Chon is the spiker who goes for the kill. They win a lot more often than they lose, they have a good time, and tanned chicks in bikins and suntan oil stop and watch them do it.

It’s a good life.

Savages consists of 290 chapters in just over 300 pages. The writing is staccato, aggressive, punchy, with abbreviated sentences that frequently fall into

staggered breaks

like this;

the occasional scene rendered in screenplay format as though the POV character were imagining it as a movie; the liberal use of em-dashes, acronyms and a weirdly compelling southern California version of Cockney rhyming slang; and more pop-culture references and brand-name dropping than you can swing a dead cat at.

The story is thus: Ben and Chon run a very lucrative marijuana growing and distribution business. Ben, the only child of two East Coast-born quasi-hippie therapists, oversees the horticultural part of the business and channels his energy and fortune into improving lives in the Third World. Chon, son of a drug dealer, SEAL, and PTSD-immune veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, provides the muscle. There’s a girl too, Ophelia (“O” for short, sometimes revised to “Multiple O” for reasons made all too wink-wink-nudge-nudge clear), whose mother (“Paqu,” or “Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe”) might have walked off the set of “Real Housewives of Orange County,” but Ophelia’s part in this is as slight as her characterization: she smokes pot, has sex with both Ben and Chon (separately and together), and gets kidnapped by the bad guys.

(Part of me wants to go off on a tear about the misogyny oozing out of practically every page of this book, but I’m not sure I could rein myself back in once I got started. Suffice it to say that I was thoroughly disgusted with the short shrift given women characters – made even worse when compared to how superficial the male characters are – and I’m not one who usually gets riled up over representations of women in fiction. That’s how bad it is.)

Back to the topic at hand, said bad guys are the Baja Cartel, who’ve decided they want in on Ben and Chon’s business and the money it will bring in. Their proposal to take over distribution comes in the form of a video of several decapitated drug dealers. Ben and Chon consider the offer carefully, but in the end turn it down. Unfortunately for Ben and Chon, the cartel’s offer wasn’t a yes-or-no proposition, and so Ophelia is taken hostage to force their compliance.

The complimentary blurb from James Ellroy on the cover hints that Savages tries to emulate Ellroy’s style, but its lack of depth means it falls far short. The bulletpoint paragraphs and writing style(s) could have served as visual and textual representations of the shallow, superficial, attention span-deficient lives the characters lead, thereby infusing them with dimension and nuance, style thereby serving as an instrument of substance. Instead, the characters come across even more devoid of depth and personality. It’s not a good sign when tertiary characters are more interesting than those in the first and second rank.

The set-up takes up more than a third of the book. This is largely because it seems to take about 10 pages of interrupted sentences and rapid-fire, cascading asides to convey one single nugget of relevant information. The remainder of the book is about Ben and Chon’s efforts to get Ophelia back and get back at the cartel for coercing them into this partnership. Once this part gets going, it actually progresses at a reasonable pace–not that the story or characters acquire any depth, it’s just that the dearth of substance is less obvious when the pace picks up.

Predictably, things don’t end well. Call it a Mexican standoff, call it a Shakespearian ending on the scale of “Hamlet” (might as well get some mileage out of Ophelia), but by the ending the stage is littered with bodies, wrecked cars and empty guns. The real tragedy, however, is that by the time I’d waded through 300 pages of style-without-substance, I couldn’t be bothered to care who lived or died.

Oliver Stone reportedly plans to direct a film version of Savages. Although it strikes me as more of a Quentin Tarantino vehicle, I think it might convert well to the big screen. Take that as you will.


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