Years ago, I read Robert Andrew Powell’s This Love Is Not For Cowards. Powell, a US journalist moved to Juarez, Mexico at the time when it was the most dangerous metropolitan area on earth. He did it to follow the local football (soccer) team, learn about its fan culture and what it meant to be so devout to a team while existing in a war zone.
A scene from that book has stuck with me almost ten years since I read it. Powell reports on a shooting that happened at a kid’s birthday party, in which many of the casualties were children. The police later learned that the assassins had targeted the wrong kid’s birthday party, as if that made everything better.
I wasn’t surprised when a version of this story pops up in Don Winslow’s The Cartel. Winslow has made a career out of taking historic criminal events and loosely fictionalizing them to tell a larger crime tale. The Winter of Frankie Machine is a personal favorite; I’m still surprised at how well Winslow drew a story out of the sparse histories of the South California mob. He applies the same talent here in the second part of his Power of the Dog trilogy.
I read book on in the trilogy about fifteen years ago. It was so good, I couldn’t put it down. Literally. I was on break from grad school and stuck in my room. I read the entire book, starting when I bought it just before dinner and finishing it around 4am, pausing only to answer nature’s call. This was the same time that The Wire was ending its run and both pieces of media made me reconsider what the drug war is and what it does to people, especially POC communities.
Because I had this very specific connection to the first book, I was kind of disappointed when I heard Winslow was writing a sequel. I wasn’t sure there was much else to say that hadn’t already been said on the subject.
Boy, was I wrong.
Using the story of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman as an influence, Winslow weaves yet another layered tale that takes place over a 10-year stretch, covering the escape of the Chapo stand-in, his attempts to rebuild an empire, the NAFTA effect on the border, how the War on Terror both stunted and empowered the War on Drugs, and so…much…more.
The locus of the story: the desire between Adán and Keller to kill the other, is really the least interesting part. Every 30 or so pages, Winslow has to pay lip service to revenge but he stocks his book full of quality characters who give a large look at what the US’ attitudes on drugs do to Mexico.
Another thing that really stuck out to me was the violence. This is off-putting for many who read it and I get that. But I also recalled Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, where he goes on at length about the femicide that takes place close to the border, repeating name-after-name and how they died until it felt rote. But that was the point; the violence was so bad that one becomes desensitized to it. So I didn’t like that Winslow did it but I appreciated why he did it.
It’s an excellent book, one of the best things I read this year. I definitely will not put much time waiting between books two and three.