If Tom Wolfe had adapted the cheap-thrills subject matter and adrenaline-rush prose of his early nonfiction writing to pulp fiction, instead of bloating it out and chasing the Great American Novel, the results might have been something close to the style of Don Winslow’s 2010 thriller Savages and its new follow-up, The Kings Of Cool. Both Kings and Savages feel like crossovers where Wolfe’s Pump House Gang encounters the bathroom chainsaw massacre of Scarface. It’s no accident that Oliver Stone, who scripted Scarface, decided he was the man to turn Savages into a movie; it’s also no surprise that his version mostly lacks Winslow’s humor and feels weightless, where the novel is fleet and sharp.
Winslow’s books render parts of their stories in screenplay form—they’re already movies on the page. That makes sense, because his heroes—Ben, the genius West Coast marijuana grower; Chon, the violent killer and Navy SEAL; and O, the girl they share—are the self-deluded stars of the bad movies they have running through their heads. All the characters are outlaws, including the only lawman in sight, Dennis, a DEA agent who’s on everybody’s payroll. They all make the mistake of thinking they can dictate the terms of their outlawry and have everything their way while demanding everyone’s respect. And all of them, the heroes as well as the leaders of the Mexican drug cartel they’re at war with, think the term “savages” refers to the people they’re fighting.
Most of these characters were in no shape for further adventures by the end of Savages, so The Kings Of Cool flashes back to 2005, when Ben and Chon are just beginning to make enough of a name for themselves to attract the attention of the local dope gangs. The present-day scenes are intercut with the story, beginning in 1967, of how some kids hanging around Laguna Beach in the days of free love and communal living came together to form a massive narcotics operation called “the Association.” The 1967-track characters, who inevitably become the heroes’ antagonists, also turn out to be their parents, and not just spiritually. And this time, all the characters believe the book’s title refers to themselves.
Like Savages, The Kings Of Cool is mean and funny and moves like a shot. (If anything, the amped-up velocity is more appropriate to this story than to its predecessor’s, since the Association quickly expands its operation beyond pot dealing to cocaine.) But it also has a poignancy denied to Savages, because of the way the passage of time shears the ideals right off the older dealers. In their youth, they talk about changing the world. As adults, their main accomplishment is to spectacularly fail to connect with their kids, who will, in turn, never grow up. Even Dennis the crooked DEA man has his can’t-turn-back-now moment here, deciding to take his first bribe after pricing the granite countertops his wife wants for their kitchen. The next morning, he resumes his usual routine and thinks, “It’s a pisser. You sell your soul and no one even notices. Not even you.”
And although Ben—the son of good liberal psychologists who are also “stockholders” in a criminal organization that has to solicit their approval when a motion has been made to kill the head man—has a philanthropic side, he and Chon and O are basically children who have found their shared sweet spot, and just want to shut the rest of the world out and snuggle. As poet Philip Larkin could have told them all in his poem “This Be The Verse” (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad… Man hands down misery to man”), every generation produces the dreamers it deserves.