Friday, May 10, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Book: Don Winslow's THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE

Sometimes the first book I read by an author will have been their best, making me somewhat disappointed in every other book by this author that I subsequently encounter.  Sometimes it works the other way.

You would think it logical that authors start out as amateurs and imitative and develop their craft as they age, that a natural arc would build toward a peak of their abilities.  This did not happen with F. Scott Fitzgerald and it didn't happen with the topic author of the day, Don Winslow.

Earlier this year, I did a reading survey of surfing novels and movies, which included rereads of Winslow's The Dawn Patrol (2008) and The Gentleman's Game (2009).  I read them very closely, wanting to see more, but my opinion of them did not change.  They are YA tinged, comic-book inspired, near-beer novels--Don Winslow lite.

I was taken aback once again when I got into Don Winslow's amazingly well-written thriller, The Winter of Frankie Machine (2006).  I included this book in my reading survey because I thought it might be an early version of Dawn Patrol, a surfer's detective novel.  Although the protagonist is an old surfer and lives near the beach, this turned out to be something else, and written on a much higher level.

Make no mistake, The Winter of Frankie Machine is still a genre crime thriller, and also a Mafia hitman novel.  My admiration for this tale goes against many of my long-held biases.  I spoke out against the cliche of Mafia novels before they became popular--that is, not only before the television series, The Sopranos, but long before the 1969 publication of Mario Puzo's The Godfather (which, against all my predictions, turned out to be a great novel).  Back in 1967, I had said that the Mafia stereotype was finally done after the comic cliches in John Godey's A Thrill A Minute With Jack Albany.

I was wrong.

So much of fiction depends upon the way the story is told.  Craft or magic, I can't always decide.  The Winter of Frankie Machine opens like a surfing novel, letting us get to know (and like) the protagonist, who gets his moniker from that older crime novel, Nelson Algren's The Man With The Golden Arm.  We don't learn of Frankie Machine's Mafia past until later, and we then like him enough to forgive him for being a cliche.

It is an amiable deception.

One of the cliches of crime fiction is the plot device where the hunter becomes the hunted.  Yet we know that life works exactly this way, that when we look into the abyss, it looks back at us.  Here's a bit of Frankie Machine's discussion of that:
Frank Sinatra played Frankie Machine

"A connection develops between hunter and prey.  Guys deny it as airy-fairy bullshit, Frank thought, but they all know it happens.  You track a guy long enough, you get to know him, you're living his life, one step removed, and he becomes real to you.  You try to get inside his head, think the way he thinks, and if you succeed at that, in a strange way you become him."

Another cliched plot device of the thriller, at least according to thriller author John Lescroart writing in Mystery Readers Journal, is that the corruption in the crime novel always goes up to "the highest levels of government."  Well, isn't that often the way it works in real life too?

Listen to Frankie Machine:

"Garth and the other S&L guys would get themselves saving and loan operations, make unsecured loans to themselves and their partners through shell corporations, then default on the loans and drain their S&Ls of all their assets.'

"Identical in shape to your classic Mafia bust-out, Frank thinks now, except we only managed to do it with restaurants and bars, maybe the occasional hotel.  These guys busted out the whole country to the tune of $37 billion and Congress hit up the working guy to pay for it.'

"The whole S&L house of cards eventually came tumbling down, and Garth and a few of the others did some time polishing their short games at various Club Feds, and the senators and congressmen  who had been on the boat, literally and figuratively, got on CNN to proclaim what a disgrace it all was"

"...You could take the Crips, the Bloods, the Jamaican posses, the Mafia, the Russian mob, and the Mexican cartels, and all of them put together couldn't rake in as much green in a good year as Congress does in a bad afternoon.  You could take every gang banger selling crack on every corner in American, and they couldn't generate as much ill-gotten cash as one senator rounding the back nine with a corporate CEO.'

"My father told me that you can't beat the house, and he was right.  You can't beat the White House, or the House of Representatives.  They own the game and the game is fixed, and it isn't fixed for us.'

"...the government wants to shut down organized crime?  That's hysterical.  The government is organized crime."


  1. Excellent piece. I have only read DAWN PATROL.

  2. My favourite Winslow is California Fire and Life. Give it a try.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, y'all. And CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE will indeed be my next Winslow.

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