For 20 years, Don Winslow has been hard at work on a harrowing, immensely detailed re-creation of America’s longest war: the war on drugs. With the publication of “The Border,” the third and final novel in this huge enterprise, the story, if not the war, comes to an end. Taken together, these angry, often heartbreaking books stand as the definitive fictional rendering of an ongoing modern tragedy. Winslow illuminates that tragedy with passion, depth of understanding and a remarkably sustained narrative drive.
The first in the series, “The Power of the Dog” (2005), began with an account of 1975’s Operation Condor, a joint Mexican-American attempt to combat heroin abuse by burning and poisoning the poppy fields of Sinaloa, Mexico. Like much that would follow, that operation had huge, largely unintended consequences, clearing the way for a new crop of drugs that would, in time, flood the streets of the United States with crack cocaine. The subsequent narrative encompasses 25 years of violence and upheaval, in the course of which two primary antagonists emerge: Art Keller, an obsessive DEA agent, and Adán Barrera, a central figure in a family-run drug cartel. Two incidents — the murder of Keller’s partner and friend, Ernie Hidalgo, and the slaughter of 19 innocents in a Mexican village — cement Keller’s loathing of Barrera. Keller’s desire for revenge will evolve into an obsession that will impact every aspect of his life.
The second volume, 2015’s “The Cartel,” follows Keller and Barrera over a 10-year period replete with internecine battles for turf and shipping rights. These battles will result in 100,000 deaths and unbelievable depravity. Winslow’s depiction of death and torture are constant and graphic. The violence reaches near apocalyptic levels, but Winslow never flinches, although the reader may.
And now we have “The Border,” which brings the war on drugs home to the United States. The novel begins with a prologue set in 2017 that depicts an all too familiar sight: a mass shooting, this time at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The primary narrative then resumes in 2012, in the immediate aftermath of “The Cartel,” moving steadily through the events of recent history and ending at the onset of our current political moment.
In Mexican drug circles, it is now the post-Barrera era. There are many claimants to his throne, but no clear winner. One unlikely figure, however, has his eyes on the prize. Rafael Caro has spent 20 years in an American prison for his role in the death of Ernie Hidalgo. Newly released, he is back in Mexico for the first time in decades, and he has very big plans.
Meanwhile, in the United States, an opioid epidemic of unprecedented proportions rages on, with prescription drug dependence giving way to the much cheaper high provided by heroin. The situation grows exponentially worse when fentanyl-laced heroin hits the streets, leaving a steadily increasing body count in its wake. Against this backdrop, Art Keller is called out of retirement to wage one final battle in a war he can never really win.
The bulk of the action takes place in Mexico, where assorted splinter groups wage their endless turf wars, and New York City, the central marketplace for heroin and every other drug. But one of the strongest dramatic threads begins in Central America and concerns a young Guatemalan boy struggling to escape the dangers of home while dreaming of a mythical paradise called America. His story puts a human face on the migrant crisis we read about every day.
“The Border” is a furious, impassioned novel that directs its anger at a wide assortment of targets. Some of the angriest (and probably most controversial) moments come through Winslow’s scathing account of the 2016 presidential election. In the mirror world of the novel, John Dennison, a real estate mogul turned reality television star, launches a presidential bid based on lies and unapologetic racism. His son-in-law, Jason, is in a financial hole after his ill-advised purchase of a Park Avenue skyscraper. Jason needs money, and a syndicate of cartel billionaires wants to help. The resulting portrait of greed and influence peddling at the highest levels of government lends an extra layer of outrage to an already white-hot narrative.
Winslow has described his trilogy as “the work of my life.” In recent years, writers such as Greg Iles and James Ellroy have also produced multivolume works that examine burning social issues through the lens of crime fiction, and Winslow’s work belongs squarely in that company. “The Border” guides us through a savage, wholly believable world. The result is a powerful — and painful — journey through a contemporary version of hell. Rarely has hell been so compelling.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Don Winslow
Morrow. 736 pp. $28.99.