Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Death and Life of Bobby Z

A couple summers ago, I read every single Richard Yates novel in the span of a couple months. For the rest of that year, I tracked down every novel and purchased them new, making him the last author I have successfully completed "collecting" if you will. I did not post a review for every novel, other than Revolutionary Road, because I'm not sure what else I was going to say other than "OMG this guy writes so good" and "he's so much better than everybody else". It was super-exciting to discover an author, especially one so goddamn good. I had been resigned to not discovering anything as awesome, so it was a pleasant surprise. But it's hard to write 800 to 1200 words about each novel when the themes and content are so similar, and my reaction to the work was so similar.

Now, we come to Don Winslow, another author that I've discovered, that I'm really excited about. I read The Power of the Dog, I read Savages, and now I've read The Death and Life of Bobby Z, and I have to admit that I'm at a loss at what to say about it without coming off as some sort of troglodyte (there's a word I don't use enough, and a word I had to look up to be sure of spelling). Winslow's strengths and weaknesses as an author seem to be pretty consistent from novel to novel, with some variation. So mentally copy and paste all that I've said about the other two novels and insert them here.

But of course, you don't visit my blog to do copypasta. You read my blog to see what kind of zany shit I can pull out of a book or a movie and call it criticism! Let's take my razor sharp critical eye and glance at The Death and Life of Bobby Z, but all the while, remembering the basic loves and hates of Winslow's writing.


Tim is a three-time loser, that is to say that he has been convicted three times. Under the 3 Strikes law, as it's called on the streetz, homey, that means Tim is going away for a long time. A couple Feds approach him, thinking he has nothing to lose, and ask him to pretend to be Bobby Z, a legendary dope-dealer, who unceremoniously croaked in custody and is needed for a prisoner exchange with some scary Mexican gang. Since Tim looks a lot like Bobby, why not have Tim play Bobby, switch the prisoners, then extract Tim afterwards?

Well, things don't quite go as planned, because the exchange is sabotaged by a double-cross, and Tim flees into the arms of the Mexican gang, who are just holding him for the big bad, the crazy leader with huevos who was wronged by Bobby Z.

On top of this impending doom, Tim falls hard for Bobby's former flame, and meets Bobby's kid, who latches onto Tim as fast as fast can. Tim wants to protect his new people, but also make it out of this lion's den with his head still attached to his shoulders. Will he succeed? Will he survive? Who knows?

The Death and Life of Bobby Z is a movie. It's a movie that you read and you turn the pages but it's a movie. Here's what the movie is made up of: beautiful California locales spanning the entire state, sex, beautiful women, sniper rifles, a tense chase scene across a desert (that made me think of the final 50 pages of All the Pretty Horses), a gunfight in the San Diego Zoo (hey! I've been there! I've even been on the gondola that features heavily in that scene), a gunfight at the docks and on a boat, an obese man burning alive in the hot sun, etc, etc, etc. It's a spectacularly cinematic book.

You could easily adapt this thing into a movie. First of all, there isn't too much internal stuff, the hard parts of books to adapt. You ever try adapting the Telemachiad of James Joyce's Ulysses into a film? Impossible is the word. Winslow completely eschews interior exploration in favour of tough guys fucking each other up with guns and grenades. Nobody ever takes a moment to think about each other's feelings. Secondly, you put Matt Damon in the lead role, Penelope Cruz as the love interest, and some fucking kid as the kid, BANG, you have a movie.

It sounds like I didn't like this book. Here I am complaining that the book is too much of a movie. But I'm only half joking. I was exaggerating about the lack of internal stuff, too. There is some. Tim, who's relationship with his father is not good, and the kid, who's relationship with his real father is not good, come together in a really organic and beautiful way. So it's all the more heartbreaking when Tim gets separated from the kid for dramatic effect and for tension. I'm not really spoiling anything here. If you've seen a movie with a surrogate dad and a kid, then you know it has to happen.

When I say it's heartbreaking, I'm not joking. I thought I was going to cry when it happened. I thought that a happy ending wasn't going to happen and I felt sick to my stomach. This means that Winslow did his job properly. I felt for Tim and his surrogate kid. Great job, Winslow. That's a hard trick to pull off and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that only 10% of all professional authors can do it. I'm a pretty uncaring person. I could give two shits about fictional people (Andy from Toy Story 3 being an obvious exception). And yet, here's Winslow, making me seem like a bitch cause I wanted Tim and the kid to be happy and safe. Damn you, Winslow.

What's different about this 1997 novel versus his other two that I've read? Cause I mean, Winslow's style is pretty set in stone, his obsession with California firmly documented (you and me both, buddy) and his pet plot points are all pretty much the same. There's not much different, I'm afraid. You know what you're getting into. The differences are purely superficial, like the setup (even that's not really that inspired) or the plot twist that for some reason caught me off guard (when in hindsight, it's totally obvious). But this isn't a complaint. This isn't a problem for me. You see, I'm okay with this. You know why? Don Winslow is slowly becoming my go-to guy for a good fucking summer read that isn't chock-a-block with Illuminati or art history. This is tough guys fucking each other up in California and it's funny and exciting and suspenseful. That's what I want from Winslow and he delivers in spades.

I tried reading T. Jefferson Parker, a guy that has some similarities with Winslow, in terms of subject matter and setting, but I couldn't get past the first ten pages because Parker isn't having any fun. When I'm reading The Death and Life of Bobby Z and his other books, I can visualize Winslow, sitting at his desk, wearing a white khaki dress shirt, his grey chest hair peeking out the front, in his pants with no shoes or socks, laughing maniacally over his hilarious one-liner and taking a toke on his joint and looking out the window at the beach, cause his office totally looks over the beach. He's having fun, I'm having fun, it's a good fucking time.

One of the reasons why I like certain works of art is because I get a sense that the people making it are having a ball. If you're an artist, and you're getting paid to do your art, you should be overjoyed at the chance. Anybody who's all dour and morose when making art should be taken out and replaced with fun guys. But Winslow, and guys like him, are having a great time and that increases my fun level. Not all art has to be serious and talk about world events, contrary to what I say sometimes. Mindless art is needed. It's for taking you out of your shitty existence and putting you in the place of the guy who can get the girl, shoot the bad guy and blow up the bad guy's base. And really, Winslow isn't mindless art. He's doing a good job and showing us that - hey - the world is full of bad guys and sometimes you need a guy like Tim.

Winslow's world is kind of black and white. And again, this isn't a bad thing. His heroes aren't really the most white-knight of guys, but they clearly stand for principles such as bros and honour and whatever. His bad guys are all nasty fuckers that torture hot blonde girls and get off on it. They're the type of guys that rape and wave chainsaws in your face. Translation: they totally deserve to get their heads blown off. So yeah, black and white, not so bad.

So here's to you Don Winslow, I wrote 1500 words about a book and I barely talked about the meat of that book. I'm totally in love with your books, and if I ever met you, I'd tell you that. It's just too bad that my library only carries a few Winslow books, and he has so many. Maybe when I make real money, I'll just buy 'em all and then donate them to the library, so other people can discover this guy and travel to Cali and shoot some bad guys.

Holy shit. They DID make a movie of this book, starring that Paul Walker fellow. According to IMDB, it's got about a 5.7 out of 10 for score. And it was direct to DVD. Probably cause it stars Paul Walker. Is this worth seeing? Yes, I don't think I will be catching this flick. I'd rather not have my experience marred by Walker's questionable acting. (Although, and this is fucking off-topic, that Running Scared movie from like six years? That was so bat-shit insane as to wrap around the quality spectrum from awful right into awesome)

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