Sunday, July 8, 2012

Don Winslow's SAVAGES: A Zen Analysis

New on our shelves is THE HOUR BETWEEN DOG AND WOLF by John Coates, a senior research fellow in neuro-science at the University of Cambridge, formerly a Wall Street trader.  His book is relevant to the analysis at hand, of Don Winslow's novel, SAVAGES.

The epigraph to Dog And Wolf is from Jean Genet, and says that the hour between dog and wolf, twilight or sunset, "when the two can't be distinguished from each other," suggests a lot of other things besides the time of day.  The dog represents domesticated man, the better angels of our humanity, while the wolf represents the animal side of our origins, always with us though often in denial.

The trinity in Don Winslow's Savages consists of a relatively domesticated man in a business partnership with a relatively wolfish man who both have an affair with the same sensuous woman.  The more clean-cut dog man is a Democrat and is fond of some platonic and Buddhist ideas, while the hairy wolfish fellow tends to be aggressive, Republican, Aristotelian, and more cynical about human nature.  The woman who happily shares these two is an airy hedonist--a blonde bimbo, some might say.
 Ben the Dog, O, and Chon the Wolf

Stereotypes or archetypes, take you pick.  But not so fast--let's look further at this on the level of parable and at what the author says in the text.

The epigraph of Savages is a quote from John Mayall's song, "California," where "The sun never seems to go down."  The line is utopian and in denial of our animal nature, in denial of death.  Which brings us back again to the epigraph of The Hour Between Dog And Wolf, or if you prefer, to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness In The West.  We recall that William Faulkner's original title to The Sound and the Fury was Twilight.

Life may be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but for all its imperfections, life is good and we hate to see that evening sun go down.  The woman who lives in paradise with these two men is named Ophelia but she is referred to as O, which is aptly nothing or emptiness in the Buddhist sense.

O rattles off popular phrases and Internet slang no end.  She's a shopaholic and addicted to sex, drugs, new duds and everything else in this consumers' world.  She enthusiastically alternates between the dog and the wolf, and in one of the many sex scenes, she takes them on at the same time, one in the front and one from behind.

You might say that O represents the public at large.  They get mindlessly fucked by both dog and wolf, unaware of the addictions that enslave them.  Ben the dog represents businessmen.  I see him as a working dog--a labrador, say.  He does some good things, but to do them he has ignored the Buddhist dictate for right livelihood, and instead has catered to the public's addictions, enabling their denials of death and hence of life.  

O not only gets fucked at both ends, but both front and rear at the same time, and the worst part about it is, she likes it--as addicts always like their fix.  She craves it.  She can't get enough.  Ben tells her that she is just trying to fill her inner emptiness.  That it is a futile task.  He gives her other bits of secular Buddhist advice as well.

Ben the buddhist dog tries to make peace with the violent drug cartels who want him to work for them.  He wants to quit the addiction business altogether and go into the businesses that help people--alternative energy and humanitarian projects.  Chon the wolf says that this will only be interpreted as weakness by their enemy, and of course that's what happens in the novel.  O then gets kidnapped, held hostage in the drug war.
How does SAVAGES measure up to major studies of violence?

Chon the wolf has an interesting monologue, where he equates capitalistic economics with war.  Very Aristotelian.  But the real epilogue comes later on page 346 of this airy 358-page novel.  It is very cynical, critical of Ego, and the narrator must be the author:  "...We went to the beach, rode the waves, and poured our waste into the water we said we loved. . .We made gods of wealth and health.  A religion of narcissism.  In the end, we worshipped only ourselves.  In the end, it wasn't enough."

Some people have said that this epilogue of Savages took them by surprise, rather like the cryptic epilogue in Blood Meridian, at the sunset of the novel.  But I hear it in the voice over of Rod Serling, like the  ending of "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street," an episode of The Twilight Zone.

But then, there is a crossroads, and a decision to be made, and I understand that Oliver Stone tacked on an alternative ending for the movie that opened last week.

The conclusion or epilogue of The Hour Between Dog and Wolf finds John Coates arguing for Aristotle against Plato in our view of the divide between body and mind:  "We may thrill to the ethereal beauty of Plato's vision, but we feel at home with Aristotle."  

Coates then warns against utopian visions on both sides:  "Unearthly ideals, we have learned at great cost, too easily lead to social and political disasters.  Equally, other worldly ideals of economic rationality can too easily lead to the design of a marketplace fatally prone to financial crises."

Beware of the utopian socialists, he says, but also beware of the utopian free-marketers.  Right now it is the Ayn Rand Utopians who bring us ever closer to the abyss.

See my review of the Ayn Rand Utopian Fantasy at this link.

See my review of Don Winslow's The Gentlemen's Hour at this link.
Does the path truly lie between the dog and the wolf?


  1. I enjoyed your review more than I did the movie. the movie was okay. 7/10. But I just just didnt care about the three "heroes". I am sure they were all supposed to be bad....ike in a Jim Thompson story....but that was a weakness for me. Ifound myself roooting for Salma Hayeks character the whole time...which was not such a bad feeling. As suaul the bad guys always dress better than the good guys.

  2. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Candy. We haven't seen the movie and don't intend to, at least until it comes out on television. The book's appeal to me is only in parable, which I think was an ambitious attempt at a Greek tragedy and a parable (a la McCarthy's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) about the violent side of human nature and the denial in which we are almost constantly immersed.

    On the surface, the novel does not work nearly as well.

    Ben is capable of love, but Chon is not. It is plausible that Ben would agree to $20 million dollars of ransom for O, but not plausible that Chon would do the same.

    So Chon must agree to give up everything to get O back only because he knows that it means war, and he loves war more than anything. Does O not say, instead of orgasms, Chon has wargasms?

    Chon's monologue says that Aristotle was right, that body and mind are one, that there is no divide. Ben's epilogue says that Plato was right, that if we do not recognize the better angels of our nature, we will destroy each other.

    And indeed, at the end of the novel, that is what happens. What happens at the end of the movie?