Monday, May 22, 2006

Review: The Power of the Dog, Don Winslow

Defenders of Dan Brown often attempt to deflect criticism by turning their hero’s alleged deficiencies into virtues. “Of course The Da Vinci Code isn’t literature,” they say. “It’s not meant to be literature!” Fair enough: The Da Vinci Code is patently not literature in any but the broadest sense, so attacking it on this ground seems about as sensible as attacking Flying High because it isn’t Jules et Jim. Be assured, however, that I am not arguing for soft-headed, let’s-be-friends literary relativism. The Da Vinci Code’s much-vaunted status as non-literature doesn’t mean that the novel is beyond criticism. Rather than a collective shrug of the shoulders – “Hey, it’s not meant to be literature, so whaddya gonna do?” – firmer grounds for criticism can and should be found.

I was thinking about this while I was reading Don Winslow’s marvellous The Power of the Dog. It’s “not meant to be literature”, either, and to criticise it for this is to commit just as serious a category mistake as to similarly criticise The Da Vinci Code. Although these categories (“literary”, “genre”, etc) are notoriously fluid and ill-defined, and with infinitely varying degrees of cross-over, it’s equally obvious that when we talk about the thrillers of Winslow or Brown we are talking about a very different kind of writing than we are when we talk about, say, Proust or Beckett. These kinds of writing are not merely different versions of the same thing, they are distinct, with distinct purposes and methods. You might as well compare the Yellow Pages with the Book of Kells.

Doubtless this is all pretty obvious stuff, but as I say it was playing on my mind as I read The Power of the Dog during the lead up to the release of The Da Vinci Code movie. Several times I heard Brown’s novel defended in various media using the “not meant to be literature” argument, generally followed by an assertion of its appeal as “mindless escapism”. And I thought, yeah, I like escapism too, but what’s wrong with intelligent escapism? Must entertainment equal vapidity? I don’t care if people read Dan Brown instead of Shakespeare, but I do wonder why people would rather read Dan Brown than an author who is working a similar vein, but with vastly superior results. Is it a triumph of marketing, or stupidity? Or both?

This is a rather convoluted way of saying that The Power of the Dog is a cracker of a book, an addictive, intelligent thriller that plays out like the coolest ever dope-running ganster film on the cinema screen in your mind. B.S. Johnson reckoned that it was pointless using the novel form to tell stories; if that was your goal you’d be better off writing film or tv scripts. I disagree. I love the mind-movie effect you get from a quality crime or espionage thriller, and The Power of the Dog induces it from go to whoa. Winslow’s prose is energetic and stripped back in that hep, James Ellroy fashion; it’s like a negative on which Winslow picks out just enough detail with just the right rhythm that the reader – or at least this reader, finding a kindred spirit in the film- and tv-immersed author – effortlessly develops it into a moving picture.

So what’s the book about? (Four paragraphs of waffle then the story synopsis? Hey, I’m like the Fonze – I don’t play by anybody’s rules. And I’m a forty-year-old man with a predilection for high school girls.) Well, it’s a Big Bad America novel – other titles in this sub-genre include Ellroy’s American Tabloid and DeLillo’s Libra. Winslow charts thirty-odd years of America’s War on Drugs, centred on the pursuit of a Mexican drug cartel by a bog-standard lone-wolf DEA agent. Around this core, Winslow packs everything an international thriller needs: the Mafia, CIA covert ops, Communist guerillas, even (take note, DVC fans) those perpetually dodgy crusaders, Opus Dei. There are no heroes in this book, but Winslow is particularly critical of the United States Government, whose War on Drugs (in his reading, at any rate) is self-perpetuating and hypocritical. I don’t know how much of The Power of the Dog is true and how much speculation, but if you’re the kind of person who bombards Amazon with negative reviews of books that don’t share your sunny view of the States, you’ll find ample inspiration here.

There are a few flaws. Winslow’s prose is effective, but occasionally sloppy. For all the narrative’s breadth of chronology and geography, it sometimes feels like a small world, populated by a dozen or so characters who will sometimes disappear for a while only to turn up in surprising (and narratively convenient) roles later on. Overall, though, I loved The Power of the Dog. It is long, pessimistic and at times shockingly violent – I doubt they could film it, although they will try – but it is also intelligent, considered, and never less than entertaining. It’s escapism with brains, and it eats The Da Vinci Code alive.


Beth said...

"And I thought, yeah, I like escapism too, but what’s wrong with intelligent escapism?"

Genius. And, hear hear! It's quite a feeling to read something that you've felt and never articulated. I always seem to be getting dragged into this debate...accused of being anti-fun etc because I like books that provide a modicum of work for my brain to do.

This Winslow sounds good.

Scarn DM said...

Don Winslow's new book Winter of Frankie Machine is coming out this month. Looking forward to that one as well. It doesn't look like it is going to be as 'in depth' as Power of the Dog, but it took Don Winslow 5 years of research to put together that one. Still, i like Don Winslow's books, and style. His website is at if you are interested.