Sunday, March 20, 2011

Winslow Tries Trevanian

Don Winslow is a writer I have long enjoyed, starting with his 1997 Death and Life of Bobby Z and continuing on with six of his later books. Savages, which came out last year was especially impressive and one that I reviewed here last August. The impression was that Mr Winslow had reached a new plateau, creating a prose style very unlike his earlier novels, sparkling, razor-edged and economic. But now comes Satori, his latest release and I have to wonder what happened.

In fact, it isn’t too hard to figure out what happened to make this newest book from Don Winslow more disappointment than anything else. The shortest way to explain it is to say that it isn’t really Winslow, but an attempt to use another writer’s characters and style to create a prequel to the 1979 Trevanian classic, Shibumi. It doesn’t work. Not being the writer’s strength, style or type of story it’s an uphill battle all the way. At one point about halfway through the book’s 500 pages a thought occurred that writing Satori was for Winslow either very easy or very difficult—Easy to rattle off an acceptable copy of standard CIA assassin storytelling, difficult to quell his own far from standard style and build a story rife with Asian settings and culture.

Nicholai Hel is a multi-lingual deadly assassin who kills only bad guys. Son of a Russian mother and German father, raised in Shanghai and trained by a Japanese general in the art of killing and survival, Hel is more than anything Japanese at heart and in spirit. In 1951 he is freed after three years in Tokyo’s Sugamo prison where he was sent for killing the man he called teacher and father, General Kishikawa. The general’s death by Hel was more honorable than hanging after his conviction of war crimes by the victorious Americans. Released from prison, Hel is offered a chance to remain free and earn a large sum of money if he will assassinate a high level Russian official in Beijing. To create a strong cover, surgeons give Hel a new face while a French beauty remakes his manner, habits, dress and French into that of a perfect French arms dealer. Shadowy bad guys start in early trying to kill him, but they are no match for Hel’s technique of ‘naked kill’ and he dispatches one after another without even increasing his heart rate. Much of the same in Beijing until complications send Hel and his tormentors south to Saigon. He is by this point mixed up with the CIA, Chinese Nationalists and communists, Russians, French, Vietnamese guerillas, and the French mafia. The number of people with Hel in their sights is beyond counting. Of course it all works out in the end, but we knew that from page one.

Apart from a style not natural to the writer, the book is weakened by either poor or little research, settings that lack definition apart from tour book descriptions, a minimum of suspense, and characters who are for the most part blatant caricatures. Were no native Japanese contracted or asked to read and correct the author’s glaring Japanese language mistakes, to set him straight on Japanese custom? Where did he get the notion that Japanese men wear kimonos, or that strangers are called by first name? There is much in Winslow’s Tokyo that is odd and inaccurate. In Beijing the opportunities for rich background are practically limitless, but you would hardly know it was China. A pivotal scene is set at the Chinese opera, but we learn nothing about what that place looks, feels or sounds like. In Saigon the only telling description is of netting around café and restaurant terraces to prevent bombs or grenades being tossed into the crowd. A casino in the almost fabled city is described…‘The large room was filled with excited chatter, shouts of victory and curses of loss, the clatter of dice, the clack of chips, and the spinning of roulette wheels. A cloud of cigarette smoke hovered like protective coverage over the triumphs and disappointments.’ Could just as well be Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

The title Satori is a Japanese word meaning ‘sudden awakening or enlightenment’ and is perhaps a play on Trevanian’s title Shibumi, which means something like ‘elegant simplicity.’ But a bigger question is why the writer undertook this project. An author’s note at the end of Satori answers the question. His agent emailed him one day, asked if he were familiar with the Trevanian classic, and if he would like to be the next Trevanian. Winslow admitted that he could never be another Trevanian, but began thinking about the idea and possibilities of writing a prequel to Shibumi. The result of it all likely earned Winslow a lot of money, but I doubt it will do much for what was already an excellent reputation for writing a different and much better kind of book.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America