A lighter month, as I tackled another beast of a book and then punted most of Thanksgiving week. With a strong finish – and December always includes a few traditional and quick reads – I’ll get to 52 books for the year.
What is the official threshold that you need to cross for your book to be labelled as epic? Is it a physical size, surpassing X number of pages? Or does it have to do with either physical distance or breadth of time covered within those pages?
By any definition, I think The Cartel qualifies as an epic novel. And it is one of my two or three favorite books that I’ve read this year.
It also happens to be another book I read not knowing there was a predecessor, on this case The Power Of The Dog. Cartel lays out the most violent years of the American war on drugs in Mexico, from 2004–2014. The focus is on one drug lord in particular, Adán Barrera, and the American agent obsessed with bringing him down, Art Keller. From these poles the story spins out to include other Mexican kingpins, American drug dealers, journalists, politicians, military officers, physicians, and regular folks on both sides of the border who get sucked into the violence. Winslow throws a very broad net but never lets all the elements get out of his control.
Along the way, Winslow provides a healthy dose of history, from how drugs are manufactured and transported in Mexico, to how the cartels undermine the foundations of Mexican society. There are often passages that read more like newspaper reports than elements of a novel.
Like any good story that is focused on organized crime, there are elements of the classics here. The Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface. And even The Wire.
Despite its size – well over 600 pages – it reads pretty quickly, even with those historical sidebars.
What makes it great? A compelling story, told with great attention to all the little elements that seem like they’re pulled from actual events. Engaging main characters and secondary characters who are more than just window dressing. An honest and often frightening representation of the violence that is endemic to the drug trade. And a healthy dose of modern noir to add some literary flavor to the mix.
This ranks right up with The Martian, Fourth of July Creek, and The Sympathizer as best books I’ve read this year. And, as the only one of those that was published this year, that means it will likely go down as my favorite book of the year.
Sometimes when I add a book to my reading list, I’ll put a note next to it that reminds me of why I added it. In this case, I put one word: Thanksgiving. But as withMay We Be Forgiven a year ago, this simply begins at Thanksgiving and then moves along through the calendar year. Oh well.
This book came highly recommended. David Eggers raved about it in The New York Times upon its release. Other reviews were glowing. But I admit, I just didn’t get it.
Don’t get me wrong. Parts of it are wonderful, and laugh-out-loud funny. One chapter is perhaps the most harrowing I’ve read in recent years. But as this was supposed to be a grand statement on our consumer culture, our endless need for more, and our reality of never being satisfied by what we accumulate, the parts did not add up to me. But I have a feeling this is a book that others may get more than me. So don’t take it off your list simply because I was lukewarm to it.