Don Winslow | The Cartel (Vintage)

“He became his own blues song, a Tom Waits loser, a Kerouac saint.”


I’m not one for drug cartel entertainment, by which I mean I don’t watch movies or read books about the topic. I know there’s a War on Drugs. I know there are problems at the Mexico–U.S. border. I know people are making ridiculous amounts of money and dying horrific deaths. But that’s about where my knowledge and interest ended.

But something made me pick up Don Winslow’s book, and I’m glad I did. Somehow, some way, Winslow manages to make these players—DEA agents, drug lords, underlings, and mules alike—into living, breathing, realistic people who (are you ready for this?) are actually sympathetic. In peeking in on their thoughts, you begin to almost feel their feelings—and even understand, just a bit, how they got to this place in life, and why.

The central characters here are ex-DEA agent Art Keller and El Federación head Adán Barrera. The two have endured many games of cat and mouse over the years, and before the book begins, Barrera is serving time following a years-in-the-making bust by Keller. Keller, for his part, has gone off the grid—way off. He’s disillusioned and tarnished. Oh, and he has a $2 million bounty on his head, thanks to Barrera. He’s in no hurry to return to the limelight.

But then Barrera escapes from prison and Keller is called upon (volunteers?) to be a part of the team trying to recapture him and dismantle his reenergized enterprise. Along the way, they encounter rival cartels, ruthless men (and a lady) whose only priorities are money, power, and control. Loyalty doesn’t count for a whole lot—nor, at times, does the money, if the place and timing aren’t right.

Despite the fact that The Cartel falls under the crime-action genre, Winslow’s skillful writing makes it more enjoyable to read. Of Keller, he writes:

He became his own blues song, a Tom Waits loser, a Kerouac saint, a Springsteen hero under the lights of the American highway and the neon glow of the American strip. A fugitive, a sharecropper, a hobo, a cowboy who knows that he’s running out of prairie but rides anyway because there’s nothing left but to ride.

In a world this raw, this ruthless, and this ugly, there will never be a happily-ever-after, and that’s OK. It’s the ride we’re along for here, not the destination.

My only caveat? Unless you want odd and unsettling dreams, don’t make this your bedtime reading. | Laura Hamlett

About Laura Hamlett 438 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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