Saturday, March 30, 2019

my review of The Border from the Sydney Morning Herald

The Border
Don Winslow
HarperCollins, $32.99
American movies in the 1970s tackled the big political issues of the day. Faced with a chaotic world, a corrupt, imploding presidency and a national sense of failure, Hollywood produced the greatest era of American cinema since the 1940s. But that Hollywood is long gone. It's all superheroes and sequels now and we are fortunate then that some of America's best novelists are rising to the challenge of documenting our era and its present ills. In an eerie act of precognition Don Winslow has produced a vast new novel, The Border, that must have taken at least two years to write and yet seems to be about the America of this week.
Don Winslow has produced a vast new novel.
Don Winslow has produced a vast new novel.
Winslow has been writing about the politics of the "drugs wars" since his early masterpiece, The Power of the Dog, in 2005. That book introduced Vietnam vet, half-Mexican Art Keller, a DEA agent sent to Mexico in 1975 to burn the poppy fields and "stamp out the drug problem once and for all". His nemesis becomes Adan Barrera, a central figure in the Sinaloa drug cartel. The murder of Keller's partner and friend, Ernie Hidalgo, and the massacre of innocent people in a Mexican village make Barrera Keller's enemy for life.
The Cartel (2015) follows Keller and Barrera throughout the 1990s and 2000s as Mexico veers into chaos and becomes in effect a narco state slave to America's insatiable demand for drugs. Perhaps 150,000 die in this slaughterhouse and Winslow shows the murder of journalists, cops, women and children with dispassionate, clinical rage.
The Border by Don Winslow.
The Border by Don Winslow.
Winslow's writing in The Cartel reaches new heights and there's a remarkable scene late in the novel when an old caballero attempts to defend his ranch against narco invaders that is written so vividly that I felt I was in the house with him. The Cartel ends with Keller and Barrera facing off in the jungle.
The Border concludes this epic trilogy. Keller is living in retirement with his doctor wife in a small Mexican town when he is offered the post of head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and promised the resources needed to knock back Cartel infrastructure within the United States. South of the Border it is now the post-Barrera era and the various Diadochi struggle with one another to become kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel and, in a way, de facto president of Mexico.
Winslow's book mirrors real events, with the US suffering a self-inflicted opioid crisis and its biggest heroin epidemic since the 1970s. The Border is an outraged, scathing novel that despairs at America's treatment of Mexico and is furious about corruption on both sides of the Rio Grande.
The rise of Donald Trump has given Winslow a perfect foil for his indignation. In Winslow's fictional universe, John Dennison, a pompous real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-host decides to launch a presidential bid in 2015 by lying through his teeth about his achievements and painting a casuistic picture of how to fix America's problems. Dennison has no difficulty flirting with the radical chic of alt-right racism and his speeches become increasingly unhinged and apocalyptic.
Winslow's Dennison joins Robert Graves' Caligula and Sinclair Lewis' Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip as perfect personifications of Trump. In a plot point that made me choke on my tea, Dennison's son-in-law, Jason, is in a parlous financial situation after a disastrous over-leveraged purchase of a Park Avenue skyscraper. Jason needs money and the banks won't lend to such a dim-witted incompetent so the cartel offers to help him out. This is level-headed, livid satire of the highest order and its claims of influence pedalling and corruption at the highest levels are entirely believable.
The Border, like its predecessors, is a glittering, brilliant, violent novel and it is not for the faint of heart. But it is worth sloshing through the gore. In my estimation Winslow joins James Ellroy, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo as the most acute unpackers of an American dream dissolving into American nightmare.
And as for life on the other side of the border? Perhaps the 19th-century Mexican president Porfirio Díaz still says it best: "Poor Mexico so far from God, so close to the United States."
Adrian McKinty's next novel, The Chain, will be published later this year by Mulholland Books.