The Kings of Cool is Don Winslow’s latest book. That’s the Don Winslow who wrote The Power of the Dog, Satori and Savages, the last of which has been made into what, by nearly all accounts, is an excellent film by Oliver Stone. For many people, that’s all I really need to say. However if you need a bit more than the elevator pitch, here goes.
This book is the prequel to Savages, Winslow’s story of three Southern California drug dealers whose success in selling high quality, hydroponically grown marijuana attracts the unwelcome and deadly attention of a Mexican drug cartel. Ben is an ethical slacker and the business brains behind the operation. Chon is the muscle – he comes into his own when things get rough. O, the most annoying of the three is… well… I’m not really sure what she is. Let’s just settle on the messed up rich girl, the group’s mascot and popular culture cypher.
The Kings of Cool looks at the three friends as they start out in the drug business in the 90s, as well as exploring their complicated histories and how they first met up. Interwoven into this is the story of another group of counter cultural types in Southern California back in the 60s, and the evolution of their decision to become drug traffickers, from the amateurish beginnings to the more serious consequences as the Summer of Love fades and the trade mutates into a high stakes business. Friendship gives way to paranoia and organised crime gets involved – including what for Winslow connoisseurs is a very entertaining cameo by a mafia enforcer called Frankie Machine.
Yes, the two sets of characters from the two different periods are somehow related. Yes, the plot involves a group of older guys trying to shake down Ben, Chon and O. But to say more will spoil it for you.
The Kings of Cool is the kind of high-octane crime thriller you expect from Winslow. What makes it really interesting, however, is his attempt to paint an alternative history of Southern California. This is depicted in terms of the changes in the drug culture and the people who inhabit it. It also includes what for me is some fascinating detail about the logistics involved in the large-scale cultivation of hydroponic marijuana.
I find Winslow’s writing has a fluid, almost effortless feel. It’s like he’s so on top of his game and knows what he’s saying so well that he can knock books out between beers over a lazy weekend. I’m sure that’s not the reality but whatever the case, his ability to impart complex backstory and character descriptions in a minimum of paragraphs is incredible.
The only thing about The Kings of Cool I didn’t like was Winslow’s decision to write in the style of a film script every now and again. Thankfully, he doesn’t do it all that often, because at times it does feel like you’re sitting in the middle of a pitch for the film rights. Otherwise it’s another terrific book by an author who keeps on getting better.