The Border by Don Winslow

The Border
By Don Winslow
HarperCollins, 2019

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Don Winslow’s spoken a few time now, nostalgic, about submitting an early draft of The Power of the Dog when it was nearly 2,000 pages long (the finished product stands at around 600, depending on your copy) after hitting walls with it, struggling with the project’s enormity, doubting himself. That was fifteen years ago. Finally the book was chiseled down, released, and praised as a masterpiece. It’s a loosely fictionalized account of the birth of the Drug Enforcement Agency in the 1970s, the inception of America’s doomed war on drugs, and the shaping of the first Mexican cartel.

He garnered the same amount of praise was his 2011 follow-up, The Cartel, which is another mostly-true novel about what was, at the time, the most explosively violent period in the war on drugs, when the cartel split up and warring factions reaped over 100,000 lives in the space of a couple years. Mass graves and torture, immolation, decapitation and gun violence abound in that book as they had in Juarez. One striking set piece has somebody marching naked across an overpass while gunmen lash his back with razor wire like some kind of steampunk Jesus.

Now, somewhat grudgingly, Winslow returns to his drug saga with a concluding third volume, The Border, and has written, again, a brilliant, funny, complex and exciting novel, brutally violent, whose 700-page heft is made all the more momentous for how it lands the ending of not just an author’s magnum opus (reading such a finale is invariably fraught with an almost-morbid interest, running parallel to the story, in how the author will tie everything together) but a comprehensive narrative portrait of—as Winslow’s always imploring us to call it—America’s longest war.

An assiduous author who works a rigid schedule, who’d published seven novels before he was able to quit his day job (alternately a teacher of Shakespeare, a tour guide in Africa, a private investigator and a journalist), Winslow has said that he approaches writing more like a discipline than an art, as a job demanding respect, and indeed the now-complete Cartel trilogy stands as a monument to his work ethic. Had he written only these three tomes in the past fifteen years, the accomplishment would still have been huge, but these volumes are three of nine to be published since 2005. The tragically long list of journalists to whom he dedicates the series, many of them killed while covering the violence in Mexico, is a tribute to the same dogged reportorial chasing and collecting and weaving of stories that Winslow has applied, these past fifteen years, to his own work.

Art Keller, the series’ hero, has ascended over the course of these books from the lower to middle ranks of the DEA and now, at The Border’s outset, is appointed to the very top of it. It’s from Washington now that he continues fighting the cartel he successfully hobbled in the previous volume.

While Keller sees fewer bouts of physical violence than he did in previous books, Winslow brings the same energy of those earlier blood-and-steel conflicts to the accounts, here, of political gaming and smoke-filled rooms. Each book in the series is as much an education as a lark, and while Dog and Cartel can be seen more as lessons in history, The Border plays like a lesson in, among other things, the trading of power in US politics, the American penal system, and a few other bureaucratic structures that—like the war on drugs—are born of an interest in parsing and helping people with certain problems, be it addiction or homelessness or gang violence, but invariably end up complicating those problems. The parasite that’s larger than its host.

When a Donald Trump stand-in by the name of Dennison vies for the presidency, ultimately getting himself elected on the promise of building a wall along the US-Mexico border, Keller has to facilitate the DEA’s biggest drug bust in history before the president-elect moves into the White House and gives him the boot.

Cue the appearance of NYPD officer Damien Cirello, going undercover to infiltrate the new scourge of the city: heroin fluffed up with fentanyl, a phenomenally lethal and addictive chemical that, while mostly found in prescription opioids and held under relatively secure bock and key by pharmaceutical companies, the cartels manage to buy from Asia, or fabricate themselves, as they go back to selling heroin after suffering blows in the cocaine trade.

So we’ve got a Washington storyline with a dozen-odd characters, a New York storyline that’s equally complicated, and in between those segments Winslow takes us back to Mexico for an ongoing chronicle of the powerplay within the cartel.

And so we get one of the book’s major flaws: the cast is too big. Particularly in the Mexico section. The hijos are a self-titled clique composed of the young adult sons of various kingpins we’ve gotten to know in the previous two volumes. They flaunt their wealth, taunt their enemies, and ultimately broadcast their killings on social media, rendering a soap opera of the violence, one that garners an international audience and turns what, for a previous generation, would have been reclusive monsters into viral sensations.

They make for some of the book’s most violent and compelling episodes, but it’s tough to follow.

Because apart from keeping track of the hijos, and of their grudges against one another as friendships dissolve in the cartel’s power vacuum, we also have to keep their lineage in mind, as the sons all inherit the grudges, goals, and crimes of their fathers. There are countless scenes of gangsters sitting down to discuss the issues they’re having with other gangsters, planning shipments and violent strikes, counterstrikes, compromises.

It’s a lot.

Winslow’s overall story, while incredibly complex and huge, is communicated with speed and clarity and insight and spectacle. It can get overwhelming at times, intimidating, but a reader who surrenders  to the complexity can trust in Winslow’s ability to tie everything together so that even a glossy understanding of certain sections, as they unfold, will be made clearer in retrospect.

Another issue is that, as we reach the final act, Winslow brings his narrative a bit too close to the present moment. A special counsel is appointed to investigate the president’s possible involvement with organized crime and, when the novel finally turns into a court drama before congress, the story is still fast and riveting but feels, also, like a product of the immediate historical moment. Too close for context. While Winslow jumped into researching The Cartel pretty soon after the events it chronicles, there’s a feeling of historical remove in that book, of like an encapsulated moment, captured in amber, turned over and studied from every angle.

The Border feels like it might be too quick on the trigger in its portrait of the present day, however riveting that portrait may be.

Finally, to spoil some stuff from The Cartel: Art Keller’s nemesis in that book, as in volume one, is a drug kingpin named Adan Barrera, a brilliant, articulate, well-shaded monster who engineers the murders of children, of whole families, but whose predicament in trying to outrun and assassinate Keller before Keller does it to him, while simultaneously (in essence) governing Mexico during a drug war, is engrossing enough to stir something like sympathy (feels awful to say so). Finally, at the end of book two, the two anti-heroes confront each other. Keller murders Barrera. The feud is over.

But if you look at other great sprawling stories, The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur, you’ll see that a lot of them start off with, and are sustained by, the very simple conflict between two people. Often they start as friends and become enemies. Their conflict becomes the inciting action for all the other stuff and, if we ever get lost in the jumble of sub-plots, we’re motivated to persevere because we wanna see how that simple feud at the heart of things gets resolved.

Well, while there’s more than enough conflict in The Border to carry its weight (the sheer talent of its author is worth the price of entry), that foundational feud between perfect enemies has ended. The storylines here, consequently, seem to drift amongst themselves. They aren’t tethered to anything. While Keller is the protagonist by merit of having been with the series longer than any of these other characters, his storyline doesn’t seem to take precedence over the story of a kingpin’s prison stint, or a child’s journey across the border, or the struggle of a young drug dealer, or an undercover cop’s identity crisis, or a traumatized journalist piecing everything together.

The Border is an outstanding book, and a solid conclusion to Winslow’s trilogy. That it gets a little too ambitious at times, and maybe lacks some of the footing of its predecessors, does nothing to subtract from the finger-slicing haste with which pages fly. On its own, The Border stands as a masterful work from a novelist at the top of his profession. Collected with its predecessors, it makes for a masterpiece.

—Alex Sorondo is a writer and film critic living in Miami and the host of the Thousand Movie Project. His fiction has been published in First Inkling Magazine and Jai-Alai Magazine.