Book review: ‘Savages’ by Don Winslow

The tale of Orange County’s underbelly is a propulsive yet meditative read.

Don Winslow is among the best dozen or so suspense novelists writing today, and in my rankings would be near the top of the list. Due to some reading already in my queue, and a honing of his prose style I wasn’t ready to engage with yet, I was a bit late to this latest Winslow novel, Savages. It’s in production as a film by Oliver Stone and, in fact, brief portions of the book are in screenplay format. However, once you get used to the stylistic conceits Winslow uses in Savages, they never keep the book from being less than a propulsive, engaging read. Not sure I would recommend it as an introduction to Winslow’s work as Sarah Weinman discusses in this fine review of the book, but it is a worthy addition to his bookshelf.

“The real break point Winslow describes… is the one between an all-too-American “religion of narcissism” and the inevitable implosion caused by outside forces. The drumbeat strikes a little loudly, but the impact of the late-act narrative soliloquy is no less damning: “We reinvented ourselves every day, remade our culture, locked ourselves in gated communities, we ate healthy food, we gave up smoking, we lifted our faces while avoiding the sun, we had our skin peeled, our lines removed, our fat sucked away like our unwanted babies, we defied aging and death.”

What, then, are we left with when we only have ourselves to worship? “Guys dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and the headlines are about Anna Nicole Smith. Who? Exactly.” The cultural references change but the juxtaposition never does. It’s easier to care about having a good time or justifying one’s behavior until you’re in a standoff and you’re not sure if your gun works. Or else, there’s Chon’s philosophy: He “has always known that there are two worlds: The savage/the less savage.” Or, put another way: “You can spend fifty thousand years practicing meditation or you can buy a gun.”

As worldviews go, “Savages” runs all the bleaker because we didn’t know it would end up that way. But all is not lost for Ben, Chon and O: Loving themselves is not enough, but each other, the world? That might be the real path toward enlightenment, not any others prescribed in O.C. territory.”

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