“Hieronymus Bosch does the War on Drugs”

The Power of the Dog - Don Winslow

Good but not great. This documents in horrifying detail the vicious takeover and expansion of a Mexican cocaine cartel, it’s involvement in America’s war on communism, the political machinations of Opus Dei and much else. On the surface, it’s a rip-roaring read; Winslow has put the research in and he sure knows how to make stuff happen. I must document I was very happy to be engaged by such a page turner as 2018 drew to a close. The only problem is that – on the basis of ‘Dog’ – Winslow is no James Ellroy and this has more in common with a first draft thriller than you might expect.     

 

Lets start with the positives. I was gripped within the first Chapter and there is storytelling going on here that is well above average. Art Keller’s back story, his first encounter with Adan and Raul, the fate of Pilar, Callan and O-Bop’s rise as gangsters, Callan’s year-long “Irish sabbatical”, his road-trip with Nora and her own depressing story; all of these could have been stand alone short stories or novellas, really toothsome mid-season episodes full of interesting character work. Winslow also zooms in and out with aplomb; he can reveal that the Pope is a keen support of Opus Dei and therefore complicit in an anti-communist bloodbath while really making you live Callan’s year of hell in “Single Room Occupancy”. The story and references had me heading to Wikipedia to orientate myself, if nothing else ‘Dog’ gives you a terrifying primer on the hell on earth that is the so-called war on drugs and at times I idly fantasised about a nuclear strike on the entire continent or, alternatively, a long shower. It’s a heck of a picture Winslow paints.   

 

Except coincidences abound. Egregiously so. Callan just happens to run into old lag Mickey in a bar in another country years after leaving New York. Callan then winds up romping onto a beach and saving the one prostitute, Nora, he saw once in a brothel in another country years previously. Nora, handbrake-turning from whore to Madonna, bumps into Father Parada in the middle of – get this – the Mexico City earthquake, the same priest Art Keller ran into in Tijuana brandishing a cross years earlier. Nora then not only gets it on with drug lord Adan but informs on him to Keller. Sal Scachi is a New York wise guy who works for the CIA and Opus Dei. It’s a novel, granted, not real life but in the end it all stacks up. You start asking the novel is there anyone who isn’t going to have a connection to Nora?  

 

Furthermore, I didn’t believe in Nora for a moment. Here’s a college girl (“Nora the Whora”) who drops out to go on the game, makes all the men go weak at the knees (natch) but reads the Wall Street Journal over breakfast, negotiates an arms deal with the Chinese (quoting from the Sun Tzu she’s just read on the plane) and on the run with Callan picks up “Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, The Eustace Diamonds and a couple of Nora Roberts romances”. Ah, fiction. The moment Father Parada starts making sentimental plans for the future a red warning sign might as well start flashing. Poor old Pilar never gets more character than “God, what a beauty”. Tio Barrera gets pitifully addicted to cocaine but reappears in the finale without so much as a shake. Both Keller’s and Adan Barrera’s families are there to facilitate attacks of conscience and phone taps when the plot requires but otherwise disappear, as does Callan’s first love Siobhan. Character work is all too convenient for the story Winslow is trying to tell.     

 

Finally, Winslow flat out abandons prose for script directions during the action scenes. So we get:

 

   The bullet takes Raul in mid-stride.

   Square in the stomach.

   Art sees him tumble, roll and then start to crawl forward.

   Then the night lights up.

 

…and there is reams of this. No one is ever going to rave about Winslow’s sentences. It’s all about the story and that’s fine, God knows I love a page-turner, but with its time jumps and novella-length vignettes this sometimes feels more like one of the old “fix-up” novels than a single, linear narrative. A lot of this would be fixed in the transformation of this novel into a workable script – which many scenes already are – but on screen, the same faces popping up again and again it just wouldn’t fly. In the end, Winslow makes you wonder whether your time might be better served reading a non-fiction account of the events rather than a clumsily fictionalised account.

 

So why do I still intend to gobble up “The Cartel” and “The Force”? Because none of the above complaints do anything to subtract from the power of a toothsome, propulsive narrative however shonkily put together. And that, my fellow sicarios, is the real power of the dog.