The Kings of Cool, By Don Winslow

The drugs that made them Savages

Doug Johnstone
Saturday 18 August 2012 17:03

If Oliver Stone makes a movie out of one of your books, it's probably quite an astute move to write a prequel. With the adaptation of Don Winslow's 2010 novel Savages hitting the big screen next month, this is a perfect time to publish The Kings of Cool – a brilliant, hypnotic novel that takes Savages' wonderful trio of characters Ben, Chom and O (for Ophelia), and delves into their pasts to find out how they came to be marijuana dealers in Laguna Beach, Southern California.

But The Kings of Cool is so much more than a mere backstory. It is actually a considerably more ambitious book than Savages, seeking to map out not only the history of Savages' weird love triangle, but also to cast a panoramic eye over the whole history of the drug trade in California from the 1960s onwards. And Winslow fulfils those ambitions fantastically well, with a stylistic swagger and bucketloads of empathy to go with a scintillating, perfectly executed crime-novel plot.

The book opens in 2005 when Ben, Chom and O are just setting up in the drug business. Growing the finest hydroponic grass, they quickly find themselves in charge of a serious operation, one that draws the attention of a long-established drug cartel in the region called the Association.

When the Association puts the squeeze on them – either pay protection or quit the game – Ben and Chom don't take kindly to these strong-arm tactics and refuse to play ball, resulting in an escalating turf war as compelling and believable as it is bloody and violent.

That constitutes the page-turning element of The Kings of Cool, but the emotional meat of the book is in the earlier narrative, in which we learn how the generation of Ben, Chom and O's parents got turned on to the possibility of drugs.

This is handled brilliantly. From early pot-smoking hippies and surfer dudes to the introduction of LSD to the culture and, latterly, heroin and, most significantly, cocaine, the description of the gradual creep from innocent high-seekers to hardened businessmen and women is entirely convincing. The sweeping changes in society are nailed, too, as is the slow, inevitable introduction of Mexican drug cartels into the mix.

Back in the 2005 timeline, Winslow uses his three main characters to examine prevalent attitudes to life, love, society and more. Ben is a liberal who seeks to take the pacifist approach whenever possible; Chom is a Navy SEAL who prefers the more direct and confrontational approach, while O is a deeply tormented girl just growing into her adulthood, full of family woes and seeking love however she can get it. She also, it has to be said, gets all the best lines.

All of which is delivered in the sleekest, most sinewy prose you're ever likely to read. At times, The Kings of Cool verges on a kind of steel-tipped poetry, providing flashes of insight from perfectly carved sentences. It is a simply stunning novel.

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