Sitting across from crime novelist Don Winslow, I’m finding it hard to reconcile this soft-spoken, bespectacled man of 61 with the scene I keep replaying in my head: a drug kingpin throwing two children off a bridge to send a message to a rival. I’ve had nightmares about this scene.
The kingpin is Adán Barrera, heir to a Mexico-based international drug syndicate and a main character in Winslow’s 2005 novel, The Power of the Dog, which documented the birth of the Drug Enforcement Administration and its much-maligned war on drugs. In The Cartel, the hefty sequel that came out in June, Winslow revisits that war and America’s role in it, while Barrera revives his longtime enmity with DEA maverick Art Keller—the so-called “Border Lord”—and everyone from local dope boys to corrupt police officers to prostitutes-turned-traffickers gets caught up in their blood feud, or killed. Often both.
In the past 25 years, Winslow has written more than a dozen novels, many of them also focused on California, Mexico and the drug trade. The SoCal native specializes in thrillers whose breezy pacing and casual language belie the seriousness of their subject matter. In 1997’s The Death and Life of Bobby Z, a hapless prisoner is asked by the DEA to infiltrate the compound of a deceased drug lord with whom he happens to share a resemblance. In 2006’s The Winter of Frankie Machine, a retired hit man tries to outrun his mob past and a lengthy list of would-be killers. In 2010’s Savages, two best friends and marijuana dealers are recruited by a cartel after their shared girlfriend is kidnapped and held for ransom.
The Death and Life of Bobby Z is about impersonation. Written by Savages author Don Winslow, the novel follows Tim Kearney, a small-time criminal who, in the interest of saving himself from a prison death at the hands of gang members, agrees to impersonate legendary (and deceased) dope smugger Bobby Z so the DEA can trade him for one of their agents, who has been captured by a cartel. As can be expected when one decides to impersonate an infamous drug lord, Kearney finds himself in over his head, plopped in a desert compound with Z’s former employers, employees and lover. Adventure ensues.
I’m behind on my reviews lately because tomorrow will be the final day in my own eight-year impersonation of someone else. Not a drug kingpin, mind you, an impersonation at which I would fail miserably (do kingpins own cats?), but rather a convincing impression of someone who knows anything about journalism, financial news, digital strategy or management. In short, I will be concluding my tenure with Crain’s New York Business.
I call my stint at Crain’s an impersonation not because I drove the thing into the ground, or because I think I’ve done a bad job in any of the four roles I’ve held at the company since 2007. Rather, I have since Day One (which in this case was my sophomore year of college, when I joined Crain’s as an intern) been surrounded by high-caliber journalists who taught me more in the first six months than a communications major did in four years. Some lessons I learned sneakily—eavesdropping on senior staffers to figure out how one successfully rejects a PR pitch—while others were offered up freely. Sometimes I learned by doing things right, but just as often by doing them wrong, leaving some poor editor to, for example, sort through my pathetic early attempts at feature writing. Basically, I’m a rookie who managed to sneak in with the pros, and somehow never got caught.
Whew. Okay. It’s out. Now you all know that when I say I have a problem with buying books, I don’t mean a small one. I mean that I had to relocate at least 30 books to floor piles (pictured) so that I might reduce the risk of one of my overburdened bookshelves collapsing during the night, thereby giving me a fatal heart attack and forcing some hapless relative to sort through my massive paperback collection while distributing my possessions post-mortem. Now you know that when I say I have a book-buying problem, I mean that I actively facilitate the makings of a serious physical hazard.
In fact, so unchecked is my penchant for bookstores that this weekend marked the first time I actually purchased a book I already owned—Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which I am (perhaps out of guilt) now reading. In the interest of making lemonade out of lemons, I will award (and mail) the extra copy to a lucky reader, to be determined after the writing of that review. …Similarly, I think it would be in everyone’s best interest if I started finding a way to give away other books, so keep your eyes peeled for more details on that in coming weeks.
Anyway! Book-buying guilt also propelled me into a frenzy of reading this weekend (under the logic that finishing 3 books would somehow justify buying 17) and so I have a wealth of reviews to write. On Friday I finished Don Winslow’s Savages, on Saturday John Green’s Looking for Alaska, on Sunday Nora Ephron’s Wallflower at the Orgy and yesterday Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction. I haven’t read this quickly and productively since that time I had chicken pox and my mom brought me an entire stack of Tiger Beat.