6/16/2007

Don Winslow.

So my friend Brandon, knowing that I work at a genre fiction bookstore, asks me about this writer. Don Winslow's his name. Brandon's been reading about him in places, and apparently his shit sounds interesting. Private eye novels, or something along those lines. He mentions two book titles to me: "The Power Of The Dog" and "The Winter of Frankie Machine." Next time I'm at work, I look the guy up. We've got one book by him: "California Fire And Life." Checking Wikipedia, I learn that this is Winslow's eighth book, originally published in 1999. Apparently he didn't do so well with the first eight, because after this one, he didn't publish again until 2005. He'd written eight books between 1991 and 1999, which is almost one a year, then nothing for six years. Since 2005, he'd done the two books Brandon was looking for.

Anyway, I call Brandon, ask if he wants the book we've got. It hasn't sold well for us, I tell him, and that's why we still have it; since we last got it, it's gone out of print. A new, more expensive edition is due out at the end of summer, and he'll be getting a bargain if he comes and gets this one from me now. He doesn't go for it--he wants to start with the books he's read about, in case Winslow's earlier work isn't as good. I tell him I'll order "The Power Of the Dog", but that "The Winter of Frankie Machine" isn't out in paperback yet, so he'll either have to pay 25 bucks for the hardcover or wait for the paperback. He's fine with all that.

Me, though, I don't want to wait. My curiosity is piqued. And I have "California Fire And Life" right there in front of me. Hey, worst-case scenario, it sucks and I put it back on the shelf. That's the great thing about working at a bookstore--you can always try before you buy.

The thing is, it doesn't suck. Quite the opposite, in fact: this Winslow guy is good. More than that, he's unique. He's got a writing style the like of which I've never seen before. A cover blurb compares him to Raymond Chandler, which is high praise in my eyes (where writers are concerned, Chandler is in my all-time top three), but in some ways is inaccurate. See, Winslow doesn't write like Chandler. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't complain if he did, necessarily--there are several guys out there right now who are writing in Chandler's style to some extent or another, and they're all solid writers whose books I enjoy. Don Winslow, on the other hand, doesn't write like anybody but Don Winslow. That said, I can see a comparison to Chandler, because Winslow also favors atmosphere, as well as understated, black humor. But that's where the resemblance ends.

One thing Winslow's got that Chandler didn't have: he's a plot guy. As a writer, I'm always really fascinated by these kinds of writers, because plot is not a strength of mine. It's all I can do to lay out a course of action that gives my characters something to do while I'm developing them. Chandler was like me: he just tried to make every paragraph interesting, and keep the characters moving until the end of the story presented itself. It always worked, but had the unfortunate side effect of causing several of Chandler's stories to make almost no sense. Anyway, Winslow's not like that--he casts a wide net, throws down a bunch of unconnected details that seem like nothing but scenery or window dressing at the time, then picks back up on them later in ways that surprise you.

Sometimes, in fact, they're really surprising. Last night I was reading the book while eating dinner in my living room, and in the book, the main character was helping to calm a random person who was making a scene at a funeral (I'm trying to give away as few plot points as possible here, so please forgive a little vagueness). It wasn't until the end of the chapter, a page and a half after the two characters had begun interacting, that Winslow had the main character speak the random character's name and, in so doing, reveal to you the reader that this wasn't a "random" character at all. This trick was so effective that, sitting on the couch reading it, I yelled "motherfucker!" at the top of my lungs. Thank God my roommate had gone out for the evening--he would have thought I'd lost my mind.

What's even more interesting about this trick is that Winslow had just used it. The incident that prompted my exclamation came at the end of Chapter 34 (which was about 1/4 of the way through the book--his chapters are short). Chapter 32 had also ended with a character's name suddenly being revealed, which had also made that character a lot less random. But when it happened again two chapters later, I didn't think, "Hey, he just used that trick 5 pages ago." In fact, it didn't occur to me that he had until I was writing this paragraph. That's how well Winslow manages his plot elements. Another example: in Chapter 35, a character makes a casual, tossed-off reference to something that had occurred in Chapter 3, and had seemed entirely disconnected from the rest of the narrative up until that point. I'd figured that it would be brought back at some point, but I certainly wouldn't have expected it to be brought back the way it was.

Even if all this intricate plotting falls apart by the end of the book (I haven't finished reading it yet), I'm still going to stay hooked, because if nothing else, Winslow's authorial voice is fascinating. In fact, I'm guessing it's this that has kept him from going farther in his career before now. Sometimes a writer who deals in subject matter that is rooted in genre but writes with some literary flair falls through the cracks; too good, too unique, for genre fiction, but too populist for the literary crowd. He's signed with Vintage Crime now, which will probably help him--they seem to be good at helping the more literary genre writers find their audience. Winslow deserves any success they can get him, because he is indeed talented.

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