Legends of the Drug War

You Can’t Look Away From ‘The Border,’ Don Winslow’s Powerful Conclusion to His Narco-Saga Trilogy

If most published reviews of The Border, the final installment in Don Winslow’s cinematic narco-saga trilogy, tend toward the vague, it’s not just because no book critic wants to be viewed as a spoilsport. This series boasts an exhaustingly complex dramatis personae. Winslow spins a tangled web of drug-trafficking chieftains and their spoiled, narco-poseur kids, monks, confidential informants, lawyers, undercover cops, honest cops, crooked cops, sicarios, journalists, chemists, junkies, destitute runaways from Central America, mafiosos, Mexican soldiers, prostitutes enterprising or not, accountants, senators, CEOs, grizzled freelance Special Forces toughs recruited from around the globe, child soldiers, gangbangers, priests, and many, many regular folks caught in the incessant crossfire. Most primary characters acquire multiple apocryphal nicknames. In the context of the story, Winslow enshrines them as outlaw legends. Does he do this with people in his actual daily life, without ever telling them? Imagine how the myriad aportos he’s whipped up for, say, his book agent.

But he clearly defines his protagonist. Following a bloody, double top-secret off-the-books adventure in Guatemala, Arturo Keller, the hero of The Border, stops reading the paper and tunes out of the drug war that’s consumed his life. Recruited to become DEA Administrator in the waning Obama years, he reasons that in this role he can promote true policy change and (perhaps) atone for the thousands of deaths claimed in his blood feud with the late kingpin Adan Barrera. After years of chasing drugs and drug lords in Mexico, Keller decides instead to pursue drug-money launderers north of the border. He eventually winds up on a deadly collision course with an American government in bed with narco-traffickers.

Among the pleasures of following Winslow’s epic trilogy has been watching Keller age. We first met Keller–son of an American father and a Mexican mother, failed boxer, Vietnam veteran–in 2005’s The Power Of The Dog, as he melted into the Mexican drug underworld as a semi-clandestine government operative. In that book, Winslow scorched three decades of War On Drugs madness onto 500-plus insane pages. The idealistic, driven Keller resembled Jason Patric in Narc or Don Cheadle in Traffic.

Flash forward to 2012’s The Cartel. Keller had grown older, more cynical, even more emotionally compromised, George Clooney in Syriana. Now, in The Border, Keller has evolved into some strange admixture of Joan Allen and Albert Finney in the Bourne films. He rides a desk in the upper-private-sector echelon, mired in maddening bureaucracy, poring over surveillance and intelligence reports, manipulating world events and underlings like an unseen puppeteer, brusque, secretive, ever the conflicted idealist.

Drug-War Doorstop

Somehow, in The Cartel, Winslow sidestepped the need to dig into Power of the Dog’s backstory, emerging triumphant with an airtight standalone classic. The Border certainly errs on the side of reiteration. But given the nearly 1,200 tense, terse pages preceding its own 600-plus pages, I can understand the author’s compulsion to anchor his larger narrative. A friend of mine described it as “arguably closer to a doorstop 19th-century social novel than an airport thriller.”

A lot of people die, violently and senselessly, intentionally and accidentally, in these novels. Their deaths result from power plays and cold, tactical considerations. The fact that Keller gradually becomes numb to most of these helps make two of Winslow’s larger points for him. Extremism, whether witnessed or wielded, dehumanizes. And most Americans yield to cognitive dissonance in terms of the larger human cost of the illegal drugs they buy. To help punctuate these themes, Winslow cons us, again and again, into caring about relative monsters via prose so taut and rapacious that his readers risk becoming literary bingers.

You’re startled to feel something crack inside when you realize that a vicious, bloodthirsty cartel enforcer has sacrificed herself for the squeamish scion to a drug empire. Your breath seizes when it seems apparent that undercover cop is going to rip and run at a crucial moment before a big bust. You grin from ear to ear when a couple not heard from since The Power of the Dog resurface in The Border, your grin fading away as you recognize that the never-ending plot–that whirling, deadly dervish of turf battles, opportunism, internecine warfare, armed, soulless men pulling up suddenly in unmarked vans or slaughtering busloads of college students–has closed in on them. You’re actually frightened for these tyrannical or heroically over-driven fictional characters who you’d never want to cross paths with in real life.

Winslow, like The Wire’s creator David Simon, appreciates symmetry in storytelling, embracing it here with open arms. He also widens his scope, zooming in on the vicissitudes of heroin-addict life, the rise of fentanyl and opiates, and those forces that inspire refugees to flee political and social risk and make a run for the border. He wants to stun and educate, but he’s well aware that entertainment can be capable of subversion and can sometimes teach us more than our media or our own eyes ever will. The Border classifies as a “literary thriller.” But let’s pray we can learn something.

(William Morrow, February 26, 2019)

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Raymond Cummings

Raymond Cummings lives in Owings Mills, Maryland. A 1999 graduate of Washington College, he is the author of books including Assembling the Lord, Crucial Sprawl, Open for Business, Notes on Idol, and Vigilante Fluxus. His writing has appeared in SPIN, The Wire magazine, The Village Voice, Splice Today, and the Baltimore City Paper. Whorl Without End, his latest collection of poetry, was independently published in January 2020.

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