Power of the Dog by Don Winslow: A review

The "War on Drugs" declared in the late 1970s has been a notably ugly, dirty, and ultimately unsuccessful war. The warriors themselves have all too often been compromised and dirty. Don Winslow introduces us to some of them in this work of fiction that reads as if it is torn from today's headlines. He shows us characters on both sides of the battle, all of them flawed even as they often also have their more humane side.

Art Keller is a hard-charging DEA agent working in Mexico when we first meet him. He is fully invested in fighting this war and in destroying the supply chain of drugs that are flowing into the United States and causing untold misery. He is willing to fight dirty if that's what it takes to bring about the desired end.

Early in his career, as he is trying to find a way "in" to the drug culture, Keller meets Adan and Raul Barerra. They are nephews to Miguel (known as Tio) who is the current head of the crime family that is sending the drugs across the border. Soon Adan will become the head of the family with Raul as the merciless enforcer.

Back in New York, we meet several mafioso types, including the Piccone brothers, "Big Peaches" and "Little Peaches" and an Irish kid from Hell's Kitchen named Sean Callan who will become a stone-cold hitman. The two Peaches are eager to get a slice of the Mexican drug pie.

There is Ramos who may be the last honest and unbribable cop in Mexico and who is a powerful ally of Art Keller in his crusade. 

Then there is Nora Hayden, a high-scaled prostitute who eventually becomes entangled with the Barerra family.

And finally, we meet Juan Parada - Father Parada, a much-loved Catholic priest who proves incorruptible and a powerful enemy of the drug families.

Winslow's book takes us on a 542-page epic journey through the years of the War on Drugs from 1975 to 2004. It is a notably violent journey with uncounted innocent victims as collateral damage. The writer did not soft-petal the violence at all and that at times made the narrative very hard to read for those of us of a squeamish nature.

At the same time, Winslow shows us all sides of his characters and we learn that even some of the worst of them have their softer moments. It is hard to reconcile any softness with the brutal, murderous cruelties that are so much a part of their actions.  

For readers who require action in order to maintain their interest in a book, Don Winslow is your guy. His book is essentially a series of set pieces of incredible action. To mention only a few, there are raids by agents, street shootouts between various factions in the drug trade, the 1984 Mexico City earthquake, various mob hits, and the constant tension of planning the battles as Keller and his allies try to take down the Barerras and interdict the flow of drugs. It makes for propulsive reading of a book that is very hard to put down. The writer keeps us on the edge of our seats right up until the very end.

This was my first experience of Don Winslow and I was very impressed. This, I understand, was the first book of three in this series. I'll definitely be reading the other two. At the end of this one, I could only agree with this sentiment expressed by Art Keller: 
“Art can’t decide whether the War on Drugs is an obscene absurdity or an absurd obscenity. In either case, it’s a tragic, bloody farce.”  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. I think Judy posted about this one recently, and it has my attention but I don't think I could handle the violence. Having heard enough from real news reports, I don't think reading about fictional accounts would be my cup of tea. Wonderful review.

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    1. As I said in my review, it does at times seem torn from today's headlines.

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  2. Seems like a book you should not read unless you are fully in control of you senses!

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  3. I like action in my books! but I am squeamish too. It looks like a high octane ride. I will consider a Winslow read.

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    Replies
    1. He's a very good writer, but since his subject here is the drug trade, he doesn't sugarcoat the violence.

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  4. Glad you found it good. I wonder which of us will get to the second book first!

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    1. I've got a full reading queue right now but I hope to get to it before the end of the year.

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  5. I have good things about this book from several sources. It is as amazing that I am 53 years old and I have been hearing about The War on Drugs since I was a child.

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    1. It is without a doubt our longest and most ill-considered "war."

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  6. You are the 2nd person I know who has read and given an excellent review of Power of the Dog by Don Winslow. I'll have to add it to my reading wishlist.

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