Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Cartel by Don Winslow Review

Drugs are bad, m’kay? And so’s Don Winslow’s latest novel, The Cartel, m’kay? 

Ok, I’ll stop that (m’kay?)! 

The Cartel spans a decade of the Mexican drug wars from 2004. That’s basically the “story” because what follows for 640(!) pages is a sprawling mess of characters and horrific incidents none of which adds up to anything. 

There’s Art Keller, a 50-something former DEA agent who’s retired from locking up drug lords and taken to the monastic life before returning for one last job (what is this, a Steven Seagal movie?!). His totally unconvincing “nemesis” is Adan Barrera, head of the biggest Mexican Cartel, La Federacion, who gets sent to prison where he meets the love of his life, a former beauty queen called Magda. With the head honcho in prison, La Federacion breaks up into factions as a power struggle commences leading to the rise of the ruthless Zetas, a cartel of ex-military thugs. 

Also thrown into the mix is Pablo, a journalist covering the drug wars, who’s going through a rough divorce and trying to keep custody of his son. There’s a child soldier, Chuy, who earns the nickname Jesus the Kid, after becoming a successful cartel hitman. There’s “Crazy” Eddie Ruiz, a former high school football star turned drug lord. And there’s several dozen other characters too – hence “sprawling mess”! 

Broadly, the novel follows these various characters as Barrera leaves prison and begins regaining control of his drug empire from the Zetas while avoiding the American DEA. What that actually means is that most of the novel is one nightmarish thing happening after another between the different sides. The cartels battle against each other in escalating, out-of-control violence with huge numbers of assassinations, beheadings, mutilations, people being burned alive in oil barrels, rape, all happening to men, women and children. 

The violence is gratuitous even if Winslow’s basing this upon reality and the descriptions over hundreds and hundreds of pages, once past the initial shock, results is a numbing in the reader to this madness. It’s one-note and it becomes very boring very quickly for very long. 

Scattered throughout this rambling narrative are standalone stories that don’t add to the main story but serve to illustrate how the drug wars affect ordinary people. An old country gentleman defends his house single-handedly from the Zetas, taking more than a few with him, and there’s the tragic story of a drugged-out whore who was once the mistress of a corrupt cop. While these tangents add to the already obnoxious page count, some aren’t half bad and are actually more interesting than what’s happening to the recurring characters. 

Quite why there was so much attention paid to Pablo and his divorce, I don’t know, as none of it was interesting. Nor was it clear how former beauty queen Magda suddenly became a whiz at the drug business once she became Barrera’s woman. Keller and Barrera’s rivalry, supposedly the core conflict of the book, was never once convincing and felt like b-movie schlock at best. 

That’s what struck me as odd because Winslow can write, really well sometimes - his other novels like Savages and The Winter of Frankie Machine, were great! Why then he decided to write real-life crime drama through the lens of poorly realised corny characters and repetitive “shock” violence that goes nowhere, is a mystery. His writing in The Cartel is among the worst I’ve read from him. 

Winslow creates one character in a particularly contrived fashion. She’s a young woman who decides to become the law in a small town – no other cop will do the job so she decides to become the sheriff. She becomes like a surrogate daughter to Keller and his girlfriend and guess what happens to her? The same thing that happens to every non-corrupt cop in Mexico. In comics, this term is called the “women in refrigerators” trope, where a female character is hurt/killed purely to provide motivation for the male character. That’s what her role in this story is for Keller. In other words, lazy bullshit writing. 

Sure, Winslow shows us the horrors of the drug wars and comments banally that it will continue because of the industry behind it. Not just the drug consumers but the increasingly militarised police, the DEA, the prison system, the border authorities, and on and on. The Cartel is a reference to the whole mess, not just the actual cartels who run the drug businesses but the American government, the oil companies who legitimize drug kingpins by working in partnership with them, and various agencies like the DEA. Everyone’s bad, m’kay?

As a novel though, it’s a very tedious read with few moments of interest. Full of one-dimensional characters, a non-existent plot, and one nasty scene after another, The Cartel leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Don Winslow, rather than say anything enlightening about the Mexican drug wars, goes for repeated cheap shocks to sustain the reader’s attention and falls short long before the forced end.

The Cartel

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