The Border – Don Winslow
For an author, finishing a trilogy has to be difficult. Especially when you didn’t set out to write a three-book series to begin with.
This is the final entry in Winslow’s excellent Power of the Dog series, in which he unfurls the epic story of the rise and fall of a Mexican drug empire and the forces that were aligned against it.
I think authors have two choices when writing a series: you can either tie each book closely together, make it necessary to read the previous entries to understand the latest one; or you can fill later editions with plenty of hooks back to the history laid down by earlier books, while still making them readable on their own.
Winslow takes the second tack. It would surely help to have read one or both of the first two Power of the Dog books, but you can also jump right into The Border and figure things out. He jumps back in time often enough, without being distracting, to either catch up or brush up the reader.
As with every Winslow book I’ve read, I really enjoyed this. The Border brings the series up to the current moment in time. After four decades of chasing the Mexican cartel leaders, Art Keller has become the head of the DEA late in the Obama administration. He entered the job with a secret: a few years earlier he had killed Adan Barrera, the head of the most powerful cartel in Mexico, in the jungles of Guatemala. That murder set off a period of chaos on Mexico as the Sinaloa cartel began to disintegrate and a host of leaders attempted to claim more territory for their organizations.
Much of the book is about the machinations of those Mexican factions. Older bosses attempt to take Barrera’s place, while a younger generation is trying to push their way into power. They enter new alliances while always seeking to push themselves ahead of their partners. Winslow has a real gift for introducing a dizzying number of characters but always coming back to them and adding depth to their stories so that none of their stories are throw-aways.
In Washington, Keller is attempting to adjust the focus of the DEA, and American drug policy as a whole. That is not always a popular idea. Especially with an election ahead.
Ah, 2016. Winslow makes that year’s election, and its aftermath, a key component of the book. While Obama appears briefly as himself, a man named John Dennison stands in for our current president. Keller takes the elements of the Russian scandal and flips it to be about Mexican drug money. A lengthy, harrowing undercover operation eventually discovers direct ties between the son-in-law and the biggest Mexican cartel, which sets off a special counsel investigation and eventual constitutional crisis. If much of the series was about the ill effects of the War on Drugs on our country, this book becomes very much about our hyper-partisan political age in general, and our most corrupt president ever in particular.
I have to admit, I struggled with the political angle. I think Winslow could have brought in American politics without shifting into an examination of our Kleptocrat in Chief. That subject is so emotional that I think it distracted a little from the bigger story. I would rather Winslow have split that off into a separate novel.
While the big moments are full of drama and excitement, where the book really excels is in telling the stories of minor characters. We get peeks into the life of Jacqui, a Long Island junkie, and how her life spirals deeper into the abyss as her addiction takes a greater hold.
The minor character that most hit with me was Nico, a 10-year-old living in the slums of Guatemala who, after being forced to join a gang, flees for America. We follow him as he literally rides on top of a train through Guatemala and Mexico, losing friends and avoiding perils along the way, and then slips into the US only to be immediately captured and eventually sent to a juvenile correctional facility. The chapter of his life in juvie is one of the most fun and yet heartbreaking in the entire book. Eventually he lands with an aunt and uncle who are living illegally in New York, and just as he begins to carve out a normal, American life, he gets sucked into the world of gangs and slinging dope.
Winslow is not a brief writer. There are no quick asides. This book checks in at over 700 pages, and they’re not Stephen King 700 pages that read twice as fast. This book requires an investment from the reader, but it pays off.
- I have never read the first book in the series, but did just fine reading the second cold. ↩