Book Review: The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

The power of the dog is an evil thing, something you never want in your life. Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog is a riveting read, and goes in my Five Star Novel List. Art Keller is an America Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent, born to an Hispanic father, a white mother, and brought up in the tough San Diego Barrio Logan. “The lost, the lonely, the bicultural misfits with a foot in two worlds and a place in neither,” is how he thinks of himself. He knows his way around chaos –– brutal, and unforgiving chaos. For those of us who have heard of the “War on Drugs” for so many years, the “Just Say No,” years, it’s a smack to understand how silly the tautology is –– “War on Drugs.”  –– macabre and useless. There was no true war on drugs, only a war on the common people, the collateral damage on both sides of the border, led by corrupt governments. We protected no one. We waged no war then. We are waging no war now. Winslow shows us a vivid vision of why we cannot rid the earth of these demonic poisons.

Don Winslow, click the pic to read more about Winslow before he began his crime writing career

Don Winslow, click the pic to read more about Winslow before he began his crime writing career

The young Adán Barrera eventually becomes “The Lord of the Skies,” the drug world’s patrón from Sinaloa (a fictionalized Joaquin Guzman – El Chapo?), but that’s long after Keller had the sad realization “that until Adán Barrera, he’d never really had a friend.”  Adàn is a complex character with a deep capacity to both love and hate.

Keller does his own dirty work and doesn’t involve his fellow agents. He tells them he has an informant. His partner is kidnapped, tortured in unimaginable ways, and is found on the side of a road. Keller never recovers from the guilt of Ernie Hildago’s death. It’s the turning point in the story. He is at war with his own soul, his country, and Adàn. Ernie Hidalgo, the dead partner, is believed to have been drawn from the real life story of Enrique Camarena.

The opening scene is memorable:

the Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

the Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Arthur Keller hears his own heart break.”

A Mexican cop murmurs: “El poder del perro,” The power of the dog.”

The poppies burn. Red blossoms, red flames. Only in hell, Art Keller thinks, do flowers bloom fire.

How easy it is to forget the horrific stories coming out of Central and South America in the ’70s,’80s and ’90s. In the meantime, our own children die of addictions too cruel to free them from. More of the same today.

The Power of the Dog is smartly written, gripping and gritty. Unforgettable characters: Callan and Nora (Callan particularly). The endearing Father Parada, who haunts Callan for the rest of his life (at least until the book ends). Ramos the the fearless Mexican agent who gives his all to cleaning up the awful mess, while making his own. Adán’s brother, Raúl, and an amazing Mexican prison break that is grounded in some truth. Easier to forget are Big Peaches and Little Peaches. Remember when the Sopranos had mob boss meetings? They always broke out cans of peaches for the occasion.

Art Keller, given his situation, what he knows, and what they sent him to do, is everything I’d want our agents to be. He didn’t do it the way they wanted. He couldn’t equal the playing field for anyone, and he knew it. He became an agent obsessed. The U.S. needed him. He needed Adán. Having said that, God help us if we burden our agents with such hell.

This is not an easy read if you are the least bit queasy, or object to an omniscient present tense POV that wanders, but does so, efficiently. I had no trouble keeping track of the characters, recognizing who was speaking, who was thinking. Loved the immediacy. Visit Don Winslow’s website here.

Deliver me from the sword, my darling life from the power of the dogs…” ~  Psalm 22:20

Now I’m on to the rest of the story, Cartel.

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