It's a mean, sun-dappled and pithy world that Don Winslow's outlaw characters inhabit in Kings of Cool.
Loyalties are constantly shifting. Drugs are ubiquitous, words are minimal and life is cheap. There is only one constant in Winslow's universe: the affection between the young trio at the novel's center.
Here we get the weed-whacked origin stories of close friends Ben, Chon and O, who were introduced in Winslow's 2010 best seller Savages (recently made into a movie directed by Oliver Stone and starring Blake Lively and Taylor Kitsch).
Navy SEAL Chon has a frighteningly easy way with violence. Ben studied botany in college and has a do-gooder's inclinations, but a casual callousness. Ben and Chon run a lucrative marijuana business with some ancillary help from O (for Ophelia), the twentysomething blonde they place above their own safety. And their safety is continually compromised by drug cartels, competing dope dealers, crooked law officers and even close family.
But O, Chon and Ben's bond is inviolable. Their development arrested, thanks to rotten parenting, the three cling to each other.
Set in 2005, this prequel goes back to when Ben and Chon launched their hydroponic grass enterprise. Shortly thereafter, they are asked (read ordered summarily) by a murky group called The Association to make monthly payments to a network dealing imported drugs. Afghanistan War vet Chon fights back and the trio's battles begin, ranging from Orange County to Mexico, via flashbacks to the pot peddlers of the mid-'60s and on to coked-out casualties of the following decades. We get the goods on the parents of Ben, Chon and O, subplots that are particularly chilling and often more compelling than the main story linking their children.
Winslow's brash shorthand style can be grating, but it suits the drug-hazed tale, set in California's moneyed Laguna Beach. He takes a simple declarative sentence and breaks it down to a kind of surf rap.
"Together Ben and Chon make up a collective pacifist. Ben is the paci Chon is the fist."
Winslow coins terms (some clever, some forced) and weaves in song lyrics. Action is presented in snippets and chapter-ettes (the first chapter is merely two words). Winslow's weakness is trying so hard to be royally cool. His self-consciously terse dialogue can seem more like the text of a tween than an adult novelist.
"O was made for sunshine. California gurl."
But as a former private investigator, Winslow knows his crime scene. His influences range from Tom Wolfe, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy to the "surf noir" of Kem Nunn.
Occasionally he interjects a script format to further illuminate his amped-up prose. Not surprisingly, Kings of Cool reads more like a screenplay than a novel.
While Winslow's fractured narrative initially comes off a bit jarring, it ties up intriguingly. By the pulpy tale's dramatic conclusion involving a tense shootout with a surprise drug lord, it's tough not to be hooked.