At one time, I read my share of historical novels. I’m thinking it’s a phase for many readers, but don’t quote me on that. James Clavell’s Shogun and Tai-pan, a Michener or two, and The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, to name a few, are some that have come my way. I still dabble in them, from time to time — I have Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels somewhere on the audiobook stack. Waiting patiently. What I didn’t realize was author Don Winslow was going to sneak one through ahead of it without me being aware.
Ever since 2009’s L.A. Times Festival of Books and the Robert Crais moderated panel with Don Winslow, Joseph Wambaugh, and T. Jefferson Parker, I began my gallivant through the San Diego-based author’s work. First with The Winter of Frankie Machine, then on to The Dawn Patrol. Fun, enthralling standalone reads that showcased the man’s talent in storytelling. The way he wrote his characters, and their manner of speaking, both novels had that distinct characteristic of a writer very comfortable with the type of people and situations unique to the Southern California lifestyle. Including but not limited to his passion of surfing, crime, and the genre fiction of both.
However, many fans of his (and a couple of mine) kept pointing to The Power of the Dog as THE Winslow to read. It just took me awhile to get hold of the audiobook. And now that I’ve read it (yes, I count listening to the unabridged audio of a book as a form of that), I can see why they said that. I’d say it is definitely possible that this novel remains as his magnum opus. It took six years for him to write and research this novel. The paperback alone weighs in at 560 pages, over 20 hours in audio form (and it’s a compliment to the Blackstone Audio studio managers to have kept it down to that run-time).
The book represents a span of time almost 30 years in length. The crime thriller’s subject? The War on Drugs and the behind-the-scenes look at that particular trade. And I wouldn’t have classified this as a historical novel if the author hadn’t done such a remarkable job at weaving real history into this multi-character (and multi-country) saga. Winslow himself has said over 90 percent of what he depicted in the novel really happened. If you’ve spent any time reading either newspapers, true crime non-fiction, history, or experiencing some of the day-to-day living in any of the U.S. states that make up the near 2,000 mile border with Mexico, you’ll recognize many of the events fictionalized in The Power of the Dog.
“See no evil, hear no evil, and for God’s sake speak no evil.”
Don Winslow’s master’s degree in military history came through clearly within the text of this novel. The extent to which he examined the drug trade and the policies begun under Nixon was nothing if not impressive. Some notorious and very ugly history (political, foreign, and criminal) was hit upon for the reader. Over three decades worth. But, it’s not all about government decisions and “the law of unintended consequences.” The author skillfully uses his fictional characters with almost chess-like skill by having them scattered throughout the U.S. and Mexico. Involved early at key junctions in the development of the narcotics-trafficking trade — on both sides of the border and the law.
Through them, they shine a light on aspects and repercussions most of the public seldom grasped over the decades. The novel is dense, but it certainly does not drag. On the contrary, it’s an ambitious thriller that sucks the reader right in. Be warned, though. Winslow does not spare anyone from some of the true ugliness in this war. For example, if you’re familiar with what happened with the real DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, you will know what I mean. The word excruciating came to mind during this section. While the author’s tale changed some circumstances to meet the story’s needs, some of the particulars in this epoch are very graphic and intense.
That’s not to say, I don’t just recommend this novel. I very much do (especially the audio form of it). The scope and depth of the novel was sweeping, if not relentless. But still absorbing.
At this point, though, I really have to praise the audiobook narrator, Ray Porter (he also performed The Dawn Patrol). If this is Winslow’s opus, it’s a tour de force performance by its audiobook reader. He had to cover and distinguish not only the men and women in the fact-based but fictive chronicle, but different American dialects, as well as a boat-load of non-U.S. characters. Porter seemed to do this with ease. Yes, he’s not a native Spanish speaker. But, his pronunciation was decent, and that was all that’s needed to establish for the listener the impression of an accent for a character that didn’t distract from the story. This he accomplished.
I admit, too, I always appreciate a narrator who nails the Spanish curse words in their presentation. Regardless, even if the book wasn’t as great as it was, I’d probably recommend the audiobook just because of Porter’s work in the production. The novel is filled with one of a kind characters, history, twists, and tragedy. And when you match up a source as superior as this monumental novel by author Don Winslow with an audiobook narrator as skillful as Porter, then it can also be unforgettable. A sample of the work by Blackstone Audio is available on their The Power of the Dog web page.