The Nameless Horror

(Partial) review: THE CARTEL

Very, very busy of late with editing work and a deadline on a bunch of magazine pieces, but I’m slowly emerging from under the pile.

One thing that has reduced somewhat - which is a shame, since I’m making a much better fist of it than in previous years - has been my reading. This is only partly, though, a result of workload, because what I’ve been trying to read has been…

The Cartel (Don Winslow)

The Cartel

First off the bat, Winslow (this is the first book of his I’ve read; I’ve previously skimmed THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE, so I knew what to expect style-wise, but otherwise came in blind) is both clearly an excellent writer, sparse and lean and effective, and equally clearly very, very well-up on Mexico’s drug trade and the sheer misery involved. The storytelling is tight and the sense of veracity never wavers.

I gave it up halfway through a couple of weeks ago.

THE CARTEL is a vast, sprawling novel that follows both the putative pro/antagonists, DEA agent Art Keller and drug boss Adan Barrera, and a whole slew of other characters involved one way or another across northern Mexico over the course of the early 2000s. The novel it most reminded me of, of all things, is A GAME OF THRONES, in so much as the scale is very broad, the cast list is very long indeed, and most of the people the reader sees will probably end up dead.

This, though, was the problem I had with it. The book is (roughly speaking) broken up into separate character POVs as the overall story follows a linear timeline. We’ll see Keller and his two Mexican counterparts conducting a raid they hope will give them Barrera, say, and then we’ll cut for a lengthy chapter following the rise, fall, near-death, and rise again of a half-American guy working the trade in Nuevo Laredo and his swearing revenge on the brutal Zetas we’ve seen murder his friend. Then cut back. And then to Barrera. And then to another guy in another place also betraying or being betrayed and dying or nearly dying and swearing revenge or trying to run. Sometimes we’ll cut back to a character we’ve seen before, sometimes we won’t. Eddie, the half-American, is a running figure, although the middle section of his story is very much told in summary. Sometimes those characters will intersect a little. Sometimes they won’t.

What I found, though, is that for all the good writing, each of those chapters plays out like a vignette of its own, and there wasn’t enough of an overall narrative thread to keep me going with after every jump. I know Keller and Barrera first appeared in THE POWER OF THE DOG, the first part of Winslow’s history (both, in theory, are standalones), but in this I really couldn’t see much of either of them as characters.

Keller’s introduction is great, and promised so much - the threat he’d be facing from Barrera, the way he’s been pulled out of a very different life (he’s a monk and a beekeeper, of all things) to return to his old one - but the reality is that other than wondering whether Aguilar and Vega, his two Mexican colleagues, can be trusted, there’s very little for Keller to do and very little actual sense of threat, danger or urgency hanging over him. Barrera must be stopped. He’s trying to stop him. It’s not easy. That initial promise never turns into anything (in the first half of a gigantic book, anyway).

It’s much the same for Barrera. We see why he hates Keller. His ambitions are clear. But after an equally strong opening section, he’s just sort of there, a presence whose decisions influence the shape of the individual vignettes, but for whom it’s hard to feel anything much at all. He’s not as evil as the Zetas, not directly, anyway, and remains mild-mannered whatever’s going on. Which is a fine basis for a character, but not one who can hold a story together with such huge gaps between his appearances.

The supporting characters are largely drawn just fine, and the various horrors they endure are very believable and deeply unpleasant, but there’s not enough about them for me to what to find out what happens to any of them. One bunch of drug guys is fighting another bunch of drug guys, and they’re all brutal and horrible to one extent or another, and… that’s sort of it. And because the scope is so broad and the scale so large, there isn’t a real sense of anything personal enough to identify with and want to see through to the end. It took me much longer than expected to reach the midway point, and after a couple of days putting off picking it up again I found myself trying to come up with something, anything, I wanted to see resolved, that I could predict and wanted to see played out before I called time on the story. I couldn’t think of a single thing.

It won’t be my last Winslow book - as I say, the writing itself is great, and t’s had great reviews elsewhere so I imagine this is purely a personal thing - but I think the sheer size of this one put too much distance between me and what I was reading for me to care that much.