The Power of the Dog

by Don Winslow

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

560 pages, 2005


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Plenty of Bite

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone

 

If your trust in the U.S. government has already been waning of late, thanks to the abundant mistakes made in both the "war on terrorism" and George W. Bush's bloody invasion of Iraq, then reading Don Winslow's newest tour de force, The Power of the Dog, is likely to put the torch to whatever particle of faith you still possess.

A 560-page saga that begins in the late 1970s and concludes in May 2004, Dog is a harrowing account of the "Mexican Trampoline" -- aka the trafficking of cocaine "from Medellin to Honduras to Mexico to the States." Dog's story, made all the more complex and riveting by collusion between the Mafia, Mexican drug lords and an American government that turns a blind eye to the rampant coke shipments ("See no evil, hear no evil, and for God's sake speak no evil"), conceals the depth of its intent and information by moving briskly along and packing one gut punch after another. Considering the success of Winslow's previous, brilliant and Shamus Award-winning novel, California Fire and Life (1999), I was concerned that this follow-up would fall short. Well, that was just plain dumb. The Power of the Dog is the best crime novel about the Western Hemisphere's drug trade I have read in many years. It will leave you stunned, but also sickened by the dark side of American democracy.

Dog is relentless in the pounding it delivers to U.S. policy regarding the so-called War on Drugs (which is really tantamount to a non-war on drugs). We all know the resources fuelling the drug war could have been used for something more essential like supporting top
drug addiction treatment programs in California
and anywhere else in the country, but I digress.

The book's greatness doesn't derive solely from its astute dissection of governmental deception. This tale is elevated as well by Winslow's cast of evocative characters. Several main players demand mention, beginning with Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent Art Keller, a tortured soul, who introduces and closes Winslow's tale. A former CIA operative ("Company Cowboy"), Keller is half Mexican, having grown up in San Diego, California's Barrio Logan. His father is a rich, white businessman who long ago abandoned his younger Mexican wife ("she looked a lot better on a moonlit beach in Mazatlán than in the cold, Anglo light of the American day-to-day.").

The brooding and intelligent Keller pins a personal motivation to his sleeve as he participates in the government's War on Drugs campaign: As a child of the barrio, we're told, "he saw firsthand what heroin does to a neighborhood, particularly a poor one. So this is supposed to be about getting drugs off the streets ..."

He is also haunted, though, by the time he spent as a CIA op in war-torn Vietnam, taking part in the systematic assassination of the Vietcong leadership.

I just have to live with the fact, Art thinks, that I wrote men's names down on paper and, in the act of doing so, signed their death warrants. After that, it's a matter of finding a way to live decently in an indecent world.

With so much blood staining his hands, left over from serving dubious American interests, Keller just barely manages to maintain his sanity -- and, eventually, his actions will cost him everything important in his life.

After jumping ship from the CIA, and then signing on with the DEA instead, he's assigned to work in Mexico. Keller's ostensible job and newest obsession is stopping the trafficking of cocaine, heroin ("Mexican Mud") and marijuana into the United States. But Keller is slow to realize that individual initiative along these lines isn't really a top priority for the DEA; his boss, Tim Taylor, wants his people to work as a team, and to avoid anything beyond official contact with drug suppliers ("Look, these people are not our pals or our drinking buddies. They're our targets ..."), even though a bit of undercover work might accomplish their task more quickly. As a result, Keller soon faces certain transfer out of Mexico. However, fate unkindly intervenes, and Keller instead finds himself aligned with Miguel Ángel Barrera ("My friends call me Tío"), an influential member of northern Mexico's Sinaloa State Police. Tío Barrera helps Keller to do what the DEA wouldn't otherwise attempt -- namely, destroy the poppy fields of septuagenarian drug lord Don Pedro Áviles ("El Patrón"). Tío is an ambitious man, and he sees Keller's obsession as an opportunity to abuse the DEA agent's trust. Barrera helps Keller, but only in order to boldly place himself into contention for Áviles' place as El Patrón. As Barrera muses early on in this book:

Operation Condor could not have gone any better. With the Sinaloan fields burned, the ground poisoned, the gomeros scattered and Áviles in the dirt, the Americans believe they have destroyed the source of all evil, and will go back to sleep as far as Mexico is concerned.

Their complacency will give me the time and freedom to create an organization that, by the time the Americans wake up, they will be powerless to touch.

Thanks to the complicity of Mexico's corrupt administration, and after entering into a shady deal with American intelligence services, Tío Barrera eventually becomes the most powerful, wealthy and feared man in all of Mexico.

Barrera's ruthlessness shortly neutralizes any and all competition, but in order to maintain control over his drug empire, he needs the support of his middle-class nephews Adán and Raúl. Adán Barrera is the intelligent one, a studious businessman more comfortable with numbers than with the sordid "wet work" essential to maintaining and building an extensive criminal dominion. Brother Raúl is the fun-loving and flamboyant one. It is Raúl who recruits street kids into the drug trade, converting the poor and desperate young into couriers and henchmen. It's frustrating to Keller that, after bringing down Áviles, he can't touch the slippery and well-connected Tío Barrera; Adán and Raúl are equally formidable and out of reach. After being relegated to running police operations designed to disrupt Barrera drug deliveries, Keller so strains his relationship with his brainy blond wife, Althie, that she and their children are left with no choice but to flee Mexico for their own safety.

The operational structure Winslow illustrates in Dog is triangular. The drugs flow through Mexico to the United States. Money flows from the States back into Mexico. But there's a third component to this operation as well. We're told that the Barrera Federación keeps lawmakers in Washington, D.C., at bay by providing weapons to covert Central American forces aligned with U.S. intelligence. Ingeniously, those guns are supplied by the U.S. Mafia, which includes them as part of the payment for drugs. Like the Barreras, the mob has its own distinctive collection of ruthless and dangerous individuals, though its star killer is not, as a less imaginative writer might have made him, a Sicilian; instead, it's an Irishman named Sean Callan. The reader is first introduced to Callan back in 1977, when he's living on the West Side of Manhattan, in an area commonly referred to as Hell's Kitchen. Callan was reared with violent Irish history a daily reminder ("Wolfe Tone, ... James Connolly, ... John Kennedy, ... Bloody Sunday"), and perhaps that heritage of blood seeped into his bones, because Callan has turned out to be one stone-cold hit man.

Pop pop.

Always two shots, right together, because the second shot automatically corrects the first. Not that it needs to in this instance; both shots go dead center.

The two .22 rounds are zipping around in the guy's brain like balls in a pinball machine.

That's why the .22 is Callan's weapon of choice. It's not powerful enough to blast a round through a skull. Instead, it sends the bullet bouncing around inside the brainpan, frantically looking for an exit, lighting all the lights and then putting them out.

Callan proves his mettle by carrying out a series of brutal killings; he proves his intelligence by staying alive afterward, despite a number of men who'd like to settle scores on his hide. The next best career step for this bright, gifted murderer is, of course, to align himself with the mob. Winslow portrays members of the Mafia as oily, self-absorbed and decidedly ferocious. Their names are classically Cosa Nostra: Big Peaches, Little Peaches, Johnny Boy and Big Paulie. If you're a follower of Mafia history, or happen to have lived in New York City in 1985, then you will recognize immediately that several of Dog's mob characters are based on real-life "made men." The most noticeable may be Big Paulie Calabrese, who's fashioned in the mold of murdered Don Paul Castellano. Sean Callan eventually ends up doing contract assassinations for both the Barreras and the U.S. government -- actions that will lead him to a San Diego motel and a bad date with a good bottle.

To balance out its torrent of testosterone, this book needs a woman's presence -- and just on cue, Winslow introduces an indisputable beauty of a femme fatale: Nora Hayden.

Nora Hayden's fourteen the first time one of her dad's friends hits on her. He's driving her home from baby-sitting his boy brat and all of a sudden he takes her hand and sets it on his bulge. She's going to take it off except she's fascinated by the look on his face.

And how it makes her feel.

Powerful.

The child of divorced parents, with a father who remains an avid pot smoker, Hayden has no doubts that her fetching looks can win her whatever she wants from rich and powerful older men. ("It's not a penis," she'll tell her friend Elizabeth. "It's a leash.") Nora is eventually spotted by Haley Saxon, a San Diego madam who is headhunting in order to start her own amorous enterprise in that navy town.

The woman shakes her head, says, "Kiddo, with your face and body, you could be an earner."

An earner. Nora likes the sound of that.

Now, Nora Hayden isn't your stereotypical hooker with a heart of gold; in fact, she exists at the other end of the spectrum -- a drop-dead gorgeous call girl with figurative brass balls. As she perfects her seductive ways, Nora also learns to distance herself from her work and to invest her money (she's an avid reader of The Wall Street Journal). And this is where her path hooks up with Dog's other plot threads: It seems Saxon supplies girls to the mob as well as the Barreras, and Hayden eventually becomes intimate with both Sean Callan and Adán Barrera. The sex scenes are graphic and, frankly, hot. Far less satisfying is the relationship between Hayden and Mexican Bishop Juan Parada, an earthy cleric who fights for the poor. Although their association is strictly platonic and Winslow never strikes a false note in its depiction, there's something a bit too calculatingly symbolic about this priest and hooker sharing their hopes and dreams. Still, Hayden's passionate devotion to this pastoral father figure is interesting, because it's just the kind of emotional bond that Keller hopes to exploit in undoing the Barrera dynasty.

Author Winslow has been thorough in his research, both for historical and plotting-strategy purposes. He recalls in these pages, for instance, the bizarre 1980s Iran-Contra scandal, which involved a sort of "shadow government" within the Reagan White House that schemed to peddle arms to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, and then divert the proceeds from that sale to fund efforts by the rebel Nicaraguan Contras to bring down their nation's Soviet Union-friendly government. The more elaborate and sinister link between Contras, Mexican drugs and the Mafia, as Winslow explains it, is plausible and horrifying. The CIA is represented in Dog by John Hobbs, an older white man so pale that he looks ghostly. Hobbs embodies the same murderous mentality as the Barreras -- he achieves his objects by taking lives, if necessary, and without second thoughts.

The Power of the Dog is not completely cynical, however. Even the bloodied and bruised Art Keller holds out hope of better things, though they may lie only in the eternal realm.

And maybe that's the best we can do in this world, he thinks as he gets up to resume watering the flowers -- tend to the garden and maintain the hope of a God.

Keller's faith should be an inspiration to us all, but will today's U.S. administration take heed of his cautions? Probably not. Winslow has written a maelstrom of a fictional political and historical book, eternally complicated, filled with killers and lovers, passion, betrayal and the quest for redemption. A book like The Power of the Dog rarely comes along, and when it does, let it break your heart and open your mind. | July 2005

 

Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.