Full disclosure: I didn’t actually finish this book. However, I did read about 300 pages of this bloated novel, so I feel pretty comfortable writing a review. It was so tempting to finish The Cartel after reading so much of it but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Those are hours of my life I could be reading The Babysitter’s Club fanfiction or watching cat videos on youtube.
I put this book on my TBR list after hearing a great interview Don Winslow had with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. He wrote The Cartel as a fictionalized version of El Chapo, the famous head of the Mexican Sinaloa cartel. Winslow’s two main characters are Art Keller, a DEA agent who has been struggling for thirty years to rid the world of Adán Barrera, the head of the El Federación cartel. After Barrera just walks out of a prison, Keller comes out of retirement to help track him down.
This book was fundamentally incompatible with my tastes. Obviously a book about cartels is going to be chock-a-block full of unsavory deeds, but there’s a fine line between being realistic and being gratuitous. The way Winslow writes about violence, murder, and rape falls on the wrong side of that line. There’s no nuance or humanity in the way he lays out disgusting deed after disgusting deed. And the male gazey way he writes about women is gross. Instead of being realistically drawn, his characters felt two-dimensional and cartoonish. Keller is a nothingburger and Barrera is a Hollywood villain. Maybe it would have been less noticeable if Winslow had written a fast-moving plot to keep the reader engaged in the story. Instead, he hops to and from random characters in different parts of Mexico that have very little to do with the main plot.
I gave this book my best shot, but it didn’t pull its weight.