I don’t read many fat novels, as I’m rather compulsive about finishing what I start and if a fat book doesn’t keep me spellbound, it might cost me a month of reading time. So Don Winslow’s The Cartel sat on my shelf for a year. It’s around 600 pages. I read it in about a week. A few works of art mean so much to me and have so changed my vision of the world and of human nature, I sometimes wish I could limit my human contact to others who have experienced them. Then I could feel we are talking about the same world. Among those works are Dostoyeski’s Crime and Punishment, Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, Bob Dylan’s song “Desolation Row”, John LeCarre’s The Little Drummer Girl and, now, The Cartel. Novelists often argue that fiction can be truer than fact. If anyone should ask me to demonstrate the validity of that position, I would send him or her to The Cartel.
One of the tasks Mr. Winslow has accomplished is to humanize an overwhelming number of facts: tens of thousands of gruesome murders; whole villages turned to ghost towns; cities, their citizens and cultures, destroyed; countries given over to the worst of the worst. When we read news articles or even feature stories, the truth remains distant, not quite real. The Cartel turns facts into people who become part of us. They penetrate our minds and spirits. I realize the bell tolls for me. If I had read the book and not felt profoundly changed, I would consider myself jaded beyond all decency.
I live overlooking the Tijuana border, have spent many months on the Mexican side, read a good deal of Mexican history, always paid attention to Mexican political and cultural news and politics. I have written so much about Mexico that my editor asked me to back off. Readers aren’t all that interested Mexico, she said. If anyone gave Mister Winslow that same advice, he or she was as misguided as the editor who famously told Tony Hillerman to “lose the Indians.” The Cartel is a masterpiece. Please read it.