Don Winslow’s *Savages*: A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of O.

Is there a verb for going back to read the book that inspired a new movie?  Retroreading or some such?  I have not seen Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel Savages but was inspired by the coverage of the movie (and reviews of the novel’s sequel) to check it out.

I get why it was popular/successful… it has a Quentin Tarantino/ Elmore Leonard / James Ellroy hipness, speed, sex, violence and general nastiness that makes for a quick and in some ways fun read.  I didn’t love it, though.

One problem: I found the basic premise of much of the story to be implausibly silly.  (Spoilers to follow, but I won’t give away the actual ending.) The high-end Berkeley Laguna Beach [Ben’s parents are Berkeley liberals and he went to UC Berkeley] pot dealers Chon and Ben cross a brutal Mexican drug cartel who respond by kidnapping their friend/ shared girlfriend/ girl-toy Ophelia a.k.a. “O” and threatening to behead her if Chon and Ben fail to comply with every demand.  Our Laguna stoner young men in turn start putting on masks and robbing the drug cartel… who for some inexplicable reason can’t seem to decide if this sudden string of bold robberies, performed by two tall white men in masks, might just possibly be connected to Chon and Ben.  So they leave “O” alone and allow plenty of time for the revenge/recapture of O plot to unwind.

I also think the book is ultimately racist in effect in ways that turns up the general nastiness/nihilism factor to an uncomfortable degree.  Every brown-skinned person in the book, pretty much, is a disgusting, sadistic, torturing thug. (There are some semi-exceptions like O’s relatively good-hearted guard.  Aww, he loves his girlfriend!)  The book turns into what’s hard not to read as an allegory of slacker white America shaking off its pot lethargy and rising up to kick the ass of the brutal brown invaders.

This theme is laid out explicitly towards the end:

Chon has read a lot of history.

The Romans used to send their legions out to the fringes of the empire to kill barbarians.  That’s what they did for hundreds of years, but then they stopped doing it.  Because they were too distracted, too busy fucking, drinking, gorging themselves.  So busy squabbling over power they forgot who they were, forgot their culture, forgot to defend it.

The barbarians came in.

And it was over.

Winslow to some degree protects himself against accusations of racism with occasional ironic shifts in perspective when we see that to some of the Mexican narco-terrorist types, it’s Chon and Ben and O., in their shiftless Anglo ways, who are are the “savages.”  I didn’t really buy it, though, and it’s not enough of a counter-weight against the morbid wallowing in visions of the sadistic kingpin Lado contemplating the rape and then beheading of O.  It’s a classic old-fashioned captivity narrative with the beautiful Anglo in the clutches of the dark-skinned savage, with all the suspense of the narrative depending on the question of whether she will be rescued before she is raped.

[That one of our heroes is named “Chon” is perhaps symptomatic of the tensions/ambiguities around ethnicity in the novel… it sounds like a Hispanic name, but it’s actually a nickname for John]

The nastiness is often witty but felt too xenophobic/racist in worldview in the end for my tastes.  And the premise of the revenge plot just didn’t make sense to me.  That said, it does have style to burn and can be pretty funny.

I’ve read very mixed reports on the Oliver Stone movie: some seem to see it as a return to form and his best film in years, but I’ve seen a couple reviews that call it borderline unwatchable and absurd.

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