Sunday, 16 December 2012


Don Winslow is a daring writer. He's not afraid to venture into new territory, and his best books are as different as the deft subtleties of Isle Of Joy are from the epic sweep of The Power Of The Dog; as the off-beat California Fire & Life is from the even more off-beat The Dawn Patrol. With Savages, Winslow again broke new ground (see my review here)--not only with his characters, but with the style of writing, a small masterpiece of form following function as he broke down the drug wars to a more personal scale than The Power Of The Dog.

Writing a 'prequel' to Savages might be looked at as being a commercial decision, the way his 'Trevanian' exercise, Satori was (you can link to my review here). Oliver Stone has turned Savages into a movie, and tinkered with the ending, but without giving too much away suffice it to say a sequel to Savages would have been a difficult task even without the movie--which I haven't yet seen, by the way, else I would have written this review and that one earlier!

But Kings Of Cool works as a prequel because it follows up on a couple of Winslow's ideas about the drug wars and American (or Californian, which you can see as an outlier or a wind-tunnel for the rest of the country) which were explicit in Power Of The Dog, and implicit in Savages. The big one is that the whole miasma of the so-called war on drugs is a function of demand. Take away the demand for product, and the 'problem' goes away. But we as a country are so reliant on that product, that the world's entrepreneurs can hardly resist the opportunity. Oddly enough, this point became crystal (not meth) clear to me while reading Dashiell Hammett's stories again for the Open Book interview I did last month (link here). There are plenty of hopheads in Hammett's work—most of them are confined to the murky underworld and skid rows or their like, and the others are primarily among the very rich and famous. As long as things remained so, even as usage spread on a large scale within the black community, the drug 'problem' remained under control.

In Savages, although Ben and Chon (and their girlfriend O) are new age small-scale homeland-endorsed entrepreneurs, they find in the end that market forces have outstripped drug culture boundaries—as pot dealers they are no longer above or beyond the drugs lords who control heroin or cocaine (and there's an interesting sidebar to be written about the place of the other home-grown business, meth cooking, the bootlegging of the 21st century and it's relation to big-time organised crime).

Kings Of Cool shows us how that came to be. The story begins Ben and Chon setting up their business in the new century, but quickly flashes back to the Sixties, with California hippie culture in full bloom and Chon's father, John (in prison when we meet him Savages) is a skateboarding kid called Johnny Mac who's taken under the wing of Doc, the Taco Jesus of the boardwalk in Laguna Beach, and quickly becomes his most successful drug dealer. We meet O's mother (the so-called Passive-Agressive Queen of the Universe) when she is just a young beauty trying to score a rich husband, and we meet Ben's well-meaning parents, who want to use their pot-selling profits to run their new-age bookshop. It's a rich mix, and it rings as authentic as Winslow's late Fifties Manhattan did in Isle of Joy, and it raises various questions not only about the parenting given our three marijuana musketeers, but indeed paternity itself.

And then, to put it simply, coke comes on scene, and everything changes, and, as we already know with the hindsight provided by Savages, when Ben, Chon and O finally learn the truth about their pasts, and change their presents, the consequences are, if not preordained, almost inevitable. The presence of characters from other Winslow books, like the hit man Frankie Machine or the legendary drug dealer Bobby Z, reinforce this point, and make it seem as if Winslow has been preparing for this moment for a long time.

What helps it all work is that Winslow has again altered his style, subtlely, to reflect the various drugs that dominate the narrative. So that the early sections have a hazy, sunny feel to them, less precise and forced than what follows, and both are different from the free-form trippiness established in Savages (interestingly, O, the most interesting verbally of the characters, becomes the narrator for Oliver Stone). I'm not sure where Kings Of Cool sits, depending on whether or not you've read Savages, and/or seen the movie, but as a feat of writing it is not far short of a tour de force. The war on drugs is monstrous and serious enough to deserve a writer like Winslow, who can meet it head on, but also take it back to its roots within our world. He's a daring, and tremendous writer.

Kings Of Cool, Random House £12.99
ISBN 9780434022076

NOTE: this review will also appear at Crime Time (

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