Friday, November 27, 2015

Book review: The Cartel (2015) by Don Winslow

The simplest way to describe The Cartel is to say that it's a panopticon of a novel about the bloody, futile and destructive "war on drugs" waged by the U.S. against the Mexican drug cartels. The central character is Art Keller, a DEA agent who's spent years fighting the cartels, and who has seen and participated in many acts of violence. Keller is almost a burnout case, and the only thing that keeps him going is a deep love of Mexico and a pathological hatred of Adan Barrera, the head of Mexico's strongest cartel. Barrera, like many of the other cartel leaders we meet, wages a constant war to fend off other cartels, stay out of the clutches of the police, and maintain the strength of his organization. The action of the novel is spread over a decade, ending in 2014, and there are simply far too many plots and sub-plots to mention. And that's a good thing. The story masterfully toggles between micro and macro views of the conflict so that every facet of this ongoing tragedy is examined in full.

Winslow's novel is partly didactic in intent. He wants to show his North American readers the sheer extent and endless savagery of this war, particularly its impact on the civilian population. The people who have died in this war aren't limited to those handling drugs and the cops opposing them. The cartels kill to both intimidate and impress, and over the period covered in this novel tens of thousands of Mexicans died at their hands. The actions of the cartels have, to a certain degree, turned Mexico into a failed state. But this isn't really a Mexican problem. The cartels exist to feed American demand, and bought-in-America weaponry does most of the killing south of the border. Winslow does not miss a single political, historical or sociological issue in describing the breadth and horror of this war, and he makes it very clear his sympathies are with the thousands of innocent people brutalized by the cartels and their allies, Mexico's frequently corrupt politicians and policemen.

Although The Cartel often has a docudrama feel, Winslow doesn't neglect his literary duties. Dozens of major and minor characters are sharply described, and even the human monsters, of which there are more than a few, aren't given the cursory treatment. There is much violence, but its brutality is necessary to give us an approximation of how barbaric the "rules" of conflict are; anything ISIS has done has been surpassed years ago by the cartels. It's not a flawless novel. Art has a rather cliche relationship with his superior at the DEA; he's one of those bosses who's always yelling that he's not going to put up with this kind of lone wolf behavior and then does exactly that. And while there are some very strong female characters, there are a few too many fulsome descriptions of women in terms of their sexual desirability. But these are minor issues. What might be the novel's greatest achievement is that it's a major American novel that wrestles with hot button political and social issues. That's a rare event in contemporary American literature, which seems more concerned with the emotional travails of the upper middle classes.

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