Book Review: THE CARTEL by Don Winslow
Tune in at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, June 27 to KAZI 88.7FM for my interview with Don Winslow, author of the new novel THE CARTEL
With the release this month of his new novel, THE CARTEL, Don Winslow completes his two book magnum opus, narrating the 30 year conflict between DEA agent Art Keller and Mexican drug lord Adan Barrera that began with the publication of THE POWER OF THE DOG in 2005. Panoramic in scope, THE CARTEL tells the story of the war on drugs in Mexico with unvarnished brutality, depicting not only the extreme violence of the cartels, but the callous policy of the U.S. which contributed to the violence.
THE CARTEL plays out Keller’s obsession with recapturing Barrera after he escapes from a Mexican prison, and Barrera’s desire to have him killed. Keller’s conflict with Barrera, which began in THE POWER OF THE DOG, has ruined his marriage and made him unpopular, but tolerated by his superiors in the DEA. In a literary sense, Keller is Ishmael and Barrera is his Moby Dick. Meanwhile Barrera attempts to reclaim his position as the symbolic head of the drug gangs, engaging in a war with his fellow drug lords, that spills over into the lives of ordinary Mexican citizens with thousands of innocent people dying.
What kept me from feeling the THE CARTEL had created a nihilistic, hopeless world were two characters, Marisol Cisneros, a Mexican doctor that Art falls in love with, and Pablo Mora, a journalist covering the drug war in Juarez, Mexico. These characters, who took up a substantial portion of the narrative, displayed honesty and courage in the face of threats against their own lives. I especiailly enjoyed Pablo, a divorced father of one who has literally covered so many murders in Juarez that he feels “morally exhausted.” Through his narration, the reader sees the daily bravery of the Mexican journalists caught in the crossfire of the drug war.
Ultimately in THE CARTEL, Winslow deftly balanced the morally corrupt world of the drug lords, the morally compromised world of the DEA, and the lives of ordinary Mexican citizen heroes. It kept me entertained while making me think long and hard about the U.S. war on drugs. For those seeking serious novels to read this summer, it should be at the top of their list.