Given to a surfeit of shorthand initials (ODB, OGR, ad infinitum), staccato declarative sentences and simple formulas for existence on the Southern California coast—including a successful marijuana cultivation and sales operation—with the slick phrasing of the terminally cool, Winslow has dropped into a groove that has much appeal for the truncated tolerance of easily distracted younger readers in his prequel to the friendship of the three characters featured in Savages.
The au courant author breezes through the early days of the evolving community of Laguna Beach circa 1967-2005, with a sprinkling of demographically eccentric characters: bookstore owners and purveyors of blotter acid Stan and Diane; Raymond “Doc” Halliday (Taco Jesus); assorted corrupt law enforcement officials; a fanatical DEA agent; the crude musclemen of the Baja Cartel; and the ever faithful Ben, Chon and O(phelia)—the female of the triangle—in an all too familiar pre-Savages plot.
This novel focuses on the care and feeding of young entrepreneurs who have built a cash empire on the storied subculture of marijuana-lovers along the Southern California coast: “Everything hinges on not selling dope to people you don’t know.” There’s a little bit of a change-up here. Young boys make their chops in a place built for plundering with the aid of grizzled mentors, where self-interest and self-indulgence rule and the sun shines most of the time. As glib and scattershot as Winslow writes, the weight of corruption on all levels asserts itself through the escalating violence and need to remain cool in the face of danger. The easy charm and local production and sale of weed of former days has been lost to myth. Modern times have ushered in the heavies of the Mexican cartels, with their signature escalating violence. These boys, Ben and Chon—and to a lesser degree Ophelia—remain cutouts for the ugly reality of paradise inflicted by greed, violence and vacuity.
I am (and remain) a fan of Don Winslow’s work (The Power of the Dog, The Winter of Frankie Machine), but I yearn for the gut-punch of his previous writing—the real stories sans the uber-cool swagger of sweat-soaked beach bodies that are more urban fantasy than reality for locals. Winslow reveals the hodgepodge of special interests and family ties that lead to the unshakable friendship of his three protagonists, a crafty blend of bedmates and business partners giving birth to life as they know it for Ben, Chon and O. Whether Old School or New, the story remains the same: the corruption of paradise and man’s eternal quest for power no matter how strange the bedfellows. It’s only a matter of degree.