Don Winslow on Fire

An interview with the novelist, whose latest book, ‘City on Fire’, publishes April 26

It really doesn’t matter which Don Winslow novel you’re considering. It could be the idealistic pot growers-gone-greedy-then-bad-then-dead tale, Savages, from 2010, the dirty cop novel, The Force, from 2017, or the vicious, blood-soaked trilogy about the cocaine trafficking world, which went from The Power of the Dog (2005) to The Cartel (2015) to The Border (2019).

Or it could be his latest, City on Fire, published by William Morrow April 26, and set mostly in and around Providence, Rhode Island. It takes place in the lower-middle realm of the mob world and it’s about how the tension builds between former friends/now rival Irish and Italian families. Everyone is fighting over precious grimy turf and more pieces of the (illegal and ill-gotten) pie. Blood is spilled.

City on Fire
City on Fire, by Don Winslow (William Morrow).

The takeaways: Power and money are what matters. Evil begats more evil, corruption begats more corruption, and humanity is full of both. If those are the games you play, a violent death may lay ahead.

A couple of years ago, Stephen King tweeted: “Don Winslow is one of America’s greatest storytellers.” He’ll get no argument from me.

I interviewed Winslow via email recently, posing the question: How do you get into the mindset to write books that are so down and dirty and violent?

“It’s a reasonable question, because I’m not down, dirty or violent myself.” Winslow says. “Okay, occasionally down, maybe. It’s a matter of getting into the characters’ mindset, to try to see the world through their eyes.  That connects me with the required emotion.  Also, I do research, a lot of it on the scene, and when that’s not available through photographs and video. So I’ve been out on those streets, seen the results of the violence.  That’s a connection.  On a shallower level, very often I’ll put on music when I’m writing those scenes.  When I was doing the drug trilogy, I listened to a lot of narcocorridas, almost exclusively.  Doing The Force, I used to blast hip-hop and rap at high volume.”

Don Winslow. Photo by Robert Gallagher.

In the Cartel series, Winslow wrote about a lot of complicated and labyrinthine situations – loyalty, tests of loyalty, double-crosses and the like. I was completely sucked in by the sordid stories and the verisimilitude, and figured I wasn’t alone in wondering how close the harrowing tales come to the reality that we see in the media.

“Very close,” he says. “The drug books were virtually documentaries – there was nothing in them that didn’t actually happen in one form or another.  Same with The Force.  I really don’t make much up.”

Winslow is a Providence native and had been working on City on Fire for years–starting, stopping, moving on, coming back.

“I set the book in New England for several reasons,” he says. “One is that I wanted to finally go home, in a literary sense.  I’d never written about my hometown before, and I thought it was time. Second, the real-life crime history of New England synced nicely with the story I wanted to tell.  And I knew that world well – it was a matter of reacquainting myself with the culture, the language and the dialect.

I mentioned that living in Boston for years and New England forever, I was well aware of one of Providence’s most heinous mob mosses, Raymond Patriarca.

“I never met Raymond, but I knew some of his people,” Winslow says. “You didn’t want to meet Raymond.’

Winslow roughly structured City on Fire like The Aeneid and set it in the 1980s. So, it’s kinda old-school/no-tech – no cell phones, no internet, no CCTV everywhere.  That was refreshing at first, though I didn’t exactly feel refreshed after spending several hours with these mugs and thugs, turning page after page in rapid succession until I thought: “These guys have crept under my skin. I feel filthy. I need a psychic cleanse.”

City on Fire is not just a crime story, though. Winslow, 68, is a master at weaving conflicted interpersonal relationships into the narrative. Certainly, City on Fire is action-driven, but Winslow gives his low-lifes both punch and personality.

On the Irish side: John Murphy was once young and fierce but now he is aging and decrepit, but still nasty; his boys run the docks in upper southside, known as Dogtown. On the Italian side: Over on Federal Hill, Pasco Ferri’s gang controls the trucking industry. Needless to say, running the docks and trucks are not the only nefarious activities these fine folks are partaking in. They’re all very keen on the noble art of “protection.”

Dockworker Danny Ryan is your principal protagonist and though he’s bent, he longs to have a life that ain’t all that. He’s Murphy’s son-in-law and his own dad once ruled the roost. Danny does some jobs for the other team, too, working for the notorious Moretti brothers, Peter and Paulie. It’s all reasonably copacetic between the two mobs – hey, we’re all criminals, we got the same mindset and values – until Danny’s asshole brother Liam drunkenly grabs the boob of Paulie’s hot new girlfriend. A fairly minor offense unless, well, unless you’re these guys. You think that they could resolve this with a humble apology, but no … the Moretti honor has been offended – that girlfriend is Paulie’s property after all – and Liam gets a beatdown of all beatdowns. (Even those on the Moretti side, think the bros may have let things get a tad out of hand.)

A multi-tiered gang war will commence. Along the way, Winslow creates sympathies, but those sympathies shift throughout the book. Some people are just trapped in the vicious circle and there’s no way out. Some you’re rooting for, some not. Everyone’s complicated; good and evil exist in most everyone and not that many of wise guys (or wise guy wannabes) make it through alive or undamaged.

Friendship, loyalty and betrayal all factor in. And there’s the feeling that whatever loyalty or friendship that might be felt at the onset, or even midpoint, that’s not going to hold by the book’s end.

“Yeah, that’s real life in the crime world,” says Winslow. “At the end of the day, almost everyone’s a rat. Chapo Guzman was an informer from early on, for instance, long before he became famous and powerful.  In fact, the only major figure I know who didn’t rat was John Gotti, and that’s because he had no one to rat on – you can’t trade down.  Look, it’s easy to talk brotherhood and undying loyalty and all, but it’s mostly a romantic delusion.  When faced with the choice of betraying your friends or your family, you’re always going to betray those blood brothers.”

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan wrote about pop music and culture for the Boston Globe from 1979-2005 and currently is doing the same for WBUR’s ARTery and Rock and Roll Globe among other websites and outlets.

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