The Border

[Amazon Link]

Well, I wish I liked it better.

It's the concluding volume (apparently) in Don Winslow's series centering on American Drug Warrior Art Keller. I read the first book, The Power of the Dog, back in 2007; the second, The Cartel, in 2018. All books in the series are notable for unremitting violence, no-honor-among-thieves betrayal, corruption, and dozens of supporting characters with complex interrelationships that are very difficult to keep straight. (I managed many, but not all.)

The book opens with a 2018 prologue where Art is visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with wife Mari. An assassin opens up on him with (of course) an "assault rifle". What's Art done to inspire such hostility?

Quite a bit, actually. We flash back to 2012, where Keller is walking out of the Guatemalan jungle after having murdered his onetime friend, drug kingpin Adán Barrera. He's broken rules along the way, and if there's any lesson he's learned from the first two books, it's that America's War on Drugs is a colossal, deadly, failure.

So naturally he walks into a new role: head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The rest of the book describes what happens then: more of the same, pretty much. Art hatches schemes that he thinks will take down the heroin trade. He succeeds in the book about as well as we have in reality. After the first two books, he should have known better.

Except there's a new political element. The book is set in a slightly-parallel universe where the winning presidential candidate in 2016 is a Trumplike character. I mean, exactly like Trump. Except his name is John Dennison. And Dennison's son-in-law (not named Jared Kushner) gets a failing real estate project, "Park Tower", propped up via heroin money. That's bad.

Winslow is a leftie, and not particularly sophisticated in his political hatreds. He goes on about the "Tea Party", but (in reality) it was essentially moribund in the book's timeframe. The "alt-right" comes in for slagging, so does Fox News, etc. The political angle of the book is cartoonish enough to wreck things. I kept expecting at least one of the corrupt pols to twirl his mustache…

Also spoiling things is a couple of melodramatic subplots, constructed from every cliché in the playbook: one telling the tale of a young girl, Jacqui, falling into heroin addiction; the other about a young Guatemalan refugee, Rico, escaping the violence in his country by hopping a train to El Norte. The former subplot features Jacqui's fellow junkie, Travis, ODing on that new hot thing, Fentanyl-laced heroin. As he croaks, Jacqui exclaims:

"Travis!!!!! Nooooooooo!!!!!!"

Yes, that's 11 exclamation points. And 9 o's in No. Sheesh.

Winslow does taut, cynical, violent thrillers very well. Adding in social commentary, politics, and sentiment doesn't work for me.