It would be easy and obvious to compare Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog with the novels of James Ellroy (and it’s gonna happen a lot in this review so be prepared, you fucking Boy Scout, you), especially one of his “Underworld USA Trilogy” novels like The Cold Six Thousand, but such a comparison does not fully grasp what Winslow accomplishes here. Yeah, like Ellroy’s novels, The Power of the Dog is an extremely cynical take on recent American history where the massive cast of characters seems to range from very gray to pitch-fucking-black, and where the conspiracies and blood cover every page, but there’s something more going on here. Really, I think that in addition to The Cold Six Thousand, The Power of the Dog would also make a nice companion piece to The Given Day, Dennis Lehane’s epic about (among many other things) the Boston Police Strike, Babe Ruth, and the influenza epidemic. But I’ll flesh that shit out in a bit – first, let’s talk fucking turkey on what The Power of the Dog is actually about.
In Winslow’s 2005 masterpiece (yeah, I’ll go that far) we follow numerous characters as they get swept up in the War on Drugs, the story taking us all over the US, Mexico, Central America, Colombia and even Hong Kong for a bit, the time frame from 1975 to 2004. Our main characters are a dogged DEA agent, a high-price call girl, a mafia hitman, a Mexican priest, and a Mexican druglord of seemingly limitless power and influence. The corruption and evil at the heart of The Power of the Dog affects everyone from local cops all the way to the Vatican, the war on drugs (rightly) treated as a farce, an excuse for the CIA to fight Latin American communist militias with US-trained, right-wing ones. In other words, this shit is very, very fucking Ellroyian, if the Nerd is allowed to make up words that should already be words.
Yet Winslow is also a master at good ol’ fashioned thrills and chills, giving the readers some of the most kick-ass action and suspense sequences of all time to go with our depressing massacres and gory assassinations, heart-wrenching romance and family drama to help wash down the heady political intrigue. Like Lehane’ The Given Day (and, as often evidenced in The Cold Six Thousand, unlike Ellroy) Winslow knows that some classic melodrama and pulp thrills never hurts when tackling a big, heavy subject like America’s failures and crimes in the War on Drugs.
But just because the Nerd is saying that there are some more traditional genre pleasures to be had in The Power of the Dog, don’t think for a second that this shit is anything less than straight-up noir awesome. There are pages and pages of unspeakable cruelty within the novel, scenes that will shock you enough to make you sick to your stomach, shit that rivals the oil-black content of even Ellroy acolyte David Peace’s “Red Riding Quartet” work. This shit is far darker than The Given Day ever dreamed of being, it’s just that, you know, like The Given Day, it’s easier to read than either Peace or Ellroy’s novels and arguably twice as “fun,” in the sickest sense of the word (yeah, yeah, I know – blasphemy, but come on, you know that you know what the Nerd means).
Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog has all the excitement of, well, a fucking Don Winslow novel but is filled to fucking bursting with ambition, its scope somewhere beyond Cinerama. This shit is epic in the Dickensian sense, dark in the basement crazy sense and entertaining in the (say it with me!) Don Winslow sense. If you can beat dem apples the Nerd will no shit eat his copy of The Power of the Dog, page by nasty-ass fucking page.