I don’t consider Don Winslow a great writer…I love his books but they don’t cross the line I need them to cross to be considered great. So, what needs to be in the package to cross the line between good and great for me? That’s a question I had never really considered until starting to write about these authors, but it is some combination of depth and artistry.
By artistry, I mean the ability to create characters I believe in, who speak in ways that sound right and who behave in ways that are recognizable to me. I mean the ability to tell a plausible story, to link events by logic and free will rather than unlikely coincidence, to make the unique, unexpected and unusual seem inevitable. And last, to craft sentences that pull aside the veil, that describe a world I hadn’t seen but immediately recognize, that combine words and syllables so they sing - the rhythm, the punch or glide, carrying the sound and meaning.
Depth may be even harder to put a finger on. But it’s writing about people and things that matter. And I don’t necessarily mean weighty things – it doesn’t have to be Atticus Finch defending a black man in a racist Southern town. It means writing stories where something is at stake and the something that’s at stake extends beyond the story, that the events, no matter how outside your own experience, raise familiar unanswered questions…about you or about the world you live in. And remember - you don’t need all of this for a good read – this is how a writer stands on my own idiosyncratic threshold to greatness.
So, where does Don Winslow fit in? Winslow absolutely creates characters I believe in and care about and the words they speak ring true for me. His characters rarely take a false step. This is particularly true of his Dawn Patrol crew – Boone, Dave the Love God, High Tide, Hang Twelve, Johnny Banzai and Sunny. The two ‘surf’ books, The Dawn Patrol and The Gentleman’s Hour, are superficially lighter books than Savages or The Power of the Dog, but they hang with me in a way those books did not…and it is because of the Dawn Patrol (more about that later). Winslow’s characters are almost always sharp, funny and true (even when they’re lying). And really funny - funny in a way that seems of a different generation than writers like Leonard or Burke or Bruen - Kimmel rather than Carson, Louis C.K. rather than Rickles. Deadpan, a little absurd, a little subversive.
“Fighting in the lineup,” Dave opined one Dawn Patrol,” would be like stealing in church.”
“You go to church?” Hang Twelve asked.
“No,” Dave answered.
“Have you ever been to church?” High Tide asked.
“No,” Dave answered.” But I knew this nun once-“
“I don’t think I want to hear this” Tide said.
“Well, she wasn’t still a nun when I knew her-“
“That I believe,” Boone said. “So, what about her?”
“She used to talk about it.”
“She used to talk about stealing in church?” Johnny Banzai asked. ”Christ, no wonder she was an ex-nun.”
Like many of my favorites, Winslow’s plots aren’t the key ingredient of his books. Not that the plots don’t keep you engaged – they do - but when I think back on his books it’s the characters I remember not the events. It’s Frankie Machine, Ben/Chon/Ophelia from Savages and the surfer dudes.
Winslow isn’t as good a singer as the authors higher on the list – he’s all rhythm, no melody. Winslow is not about beautiful sentences, he’s about energy. His prose has this rolling downhill, accelerating, propulsive quality even when there’s not a lot of action. I’m not sure exactly what the technique is – maybe long compound sentences followed by short declarative ones - I’m not really sure. He just does something that makes his sentences easy to read and hard to stop reading and it’s more the rhythm than the words. This is straight ahead rock’n’roll – more Clash than Big Star. When he shoots for simile or metaphor – melody over rhythm - it almost always feel pedestrian and predictable to me.
…violent as a Mike Tyson off meds…
The kid scarfed the buffet like a vacuum cleaner…
But when he smacks the snare, hard on the 2 and 4…
This wave is the superstar, the genuine badass, the take-your-lunch money, walk-off-with-your-girlfriend, give-me-those-fucking sneakers, thank you for playing and now what parting gifts do we have for our contestant, Vanna - wave.
One of the places that Winslow falls short for me is that there doesn’t always seem to be as much at stake as for authors further up the list. This may seem strange given that Winslow has spent a good chunk of his career explicitly taking on the War on Drugs and the damage that American drug policies have caused in the US and in South and Central America – no other author on the list take a political position anywhere close to the explicit stand that Winslow takes on US drug policy. But having a thesis doesn’t seem to completely work for me. Maybe it’s that, while he shoots for moral ambiguity, he doesn’t pull it off as well as writers higher on the list. His characters never feel very close to the edge. I don’t mean they don’t face physical danger, that’s all over the place. I mean that they never seem very close to going to Hell. The only way they’ll end up there is if, in fact, you can get there on good intentions alone.
As an aside, I don’t know if Don Winslow invented bro’ lit but he is one of the major practitioners. Bro’ lit isn’t just guy books – Ernest Hemingway, Mickey Spillane, Robert Parker…these guys didn’t write bro’ lit, they just wrote books for guys - hard-boiled, violent, booze-swilling, babe-tapping, you punch me in the face and then I’ll punch you in the face until one of us falls down. But that doesn’t get you into the bro’ lit club. All of those things are necessary…they just aren’t sufficient. The added necessary piece is that the most important relationships in the book have to be between two or more men (and it goes without saying that the relationship can’t be sexual…no offence to gay men everywhere…I’m just defining bro’ lit). You can tell you’re reading bro’ lit if (1) male friends say horrible things to each other but beautiful things about each other and (2) male friends do painful things to each other just before putting their lives on the line to protect each other. This is the Dawn Patrol.
“You gonna live? Boone asks him.
Not enthusiastically,” Dave answers
I’ll kill you if you want,” High Tide offers. “Something to do anyway.”
Johnny Banzai is all over it. “How? How should we kill Dave?”
“Drowning him would be easiest.” Boone suggests.
“Hello?” Tide says. “He’s a lifeguard!”
And so it goes. But, of course, any of these guys would die for each other. The Dawn Patrol may not be the first but it is among the best examples of bro’ lit. There’s not a guy alive who doesn’t want to join this gang. I’m not sure it’s real, but guys like to think it is.
I should add that I haven’t read the complete Don Winslow so I may be shortchanging him. In particular, I haven’t read all of the Neal Carey books…but I will get to them.
I am an ecologist, conservation biologist and writer. I’m working on my 11th novel. The third, LONG TRAIN HOME was published by Level Best Books in the spring of 2022 and the sixth, BOOM BOOM'S LAST CALL, will release in the spring of 2023. Originally from Ottawa, Ontario I work at the University of New Brunswick and live with my wife Kim in Saint John, New Brunswick.
#6 James Crumley (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#7 - Don Winslow
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#8 Dennis Lehane - (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#9 Michael Connolly
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