Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Review: Satori by Don Winslow

Let me just start by saying that even if you don't know anything about Trevanian, Shibumi, or Nicholai Hel, you can still read this book.

Shibumi is Trevanian's opus, a super-spy thriller featuring Nicholai Hel, the son of a White Russian emigre who has lived in Asia (China and Japan) for most of his life. The book combines sophisticated action, martial arts, Eastern philosophy based on the game of Go, courtesans, and nifty ways to kill people if you don't have a gun.  Shibumi means "understated elegance" in Japanese, the concept Hel wishes to live his life by.

Don Winslow is also a thriller writer. If you haven't read his The Power of the Dog, read and it marvel at the way Winslow moves the action forward and makes you give a crap about some very unsavory people.  However, Winslow's last book, Savages, missed the mark for me, big time, despite having one of the best opening chapters ever.  So this latest offering, combining Trevanian's character and Winslow's terse style and action-packed plots, looked to be a rip-roaring good time.

And it was.  Most of the time.  But this was always going to be a bitch to pull off, and here's why.

Winslow is at his best when he writes incredibly short chapters that move the plot ahead at lightning speed.  Trevanian's writing was longer, breathier, almost floating over itself.  These two styles aren't easy to intertwine.  The beginning of Satori, set in 1951, details Nicholai Hel's release from American custody and his briefing/training for his new mission: go to Beijing and kill a Russian diplomat, Yuri Voroshenin.  The first hundred pages emulate Trevanian's style.  Once the action picks up, Winslow's style takes over.  Then the rest of the book is a bit of a mash-up of the two.  The parts where Winslow writes as himself are where the book shines.  You will flip pages like a madperson trying to find out who's controlling whom and whether Nicholai's hit on Voroshenin will happen.  I dare you to walk the dog or make dinner while Hel tracks Voroshenin and the US operatives watch behind the scenes.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the murder.  That particular plot point comes and goes (see how I'm cleverly avoiding a spoiler by not telling you how it all went down?), and you're only halfway through the book.  What the hell is the rest of it going to be about?

This is where it turns into a mash-up of things you've already seen in James Bond movies.  Actually, one of the James Bond elements happened during the lead-up to the scheduled assassination.  Remember the part in Casino Royale that made every man cringe?  Yeah, that's here, too.

Remember that other part in Casino Royale, where the spies gather to play poker, all attempting to take down the big baddie?  Yeah, that's here, too, with Hel as Bond and the American spy, Haverford, as Felix Leiter.

Remember that part in The World Is Not Enough, where Sophie Marceau's character drops a million in a casino as a clever way of paying a gangster for services rendered?  There's a version of that trick here, too.

This is where the novel starts to feel a bit tired.  Basically, Hel gets dragged into the spy game that preceded the American entry into Vietnam. The mechanics of how and why are fuzzy, even though I read the book in just three sittings.  That's part of what kept me from going Power-of-the-Dog-crazy for this book.  The motivations for the entire second half of the book still feel hazy to me.  Oh, yes, staying alive is always good motivation.  But there are so many sides to the puzzle and then characters turning traitor and others turning tricks that I sort of threw up my hands and told myself to stop trying to understand it and just go with it.  Of course, I read much faster after this...but without as much pleasure.  I would have needed a freaking wall of index cards to help me keep track of this in the way I would have liked. A few moments of reflection on Nicholai's part might have been able to solve this problem, providing convenient recaps and refreshers for those of us who don't speak spy.

In fact, Nicholai's character seems to grow simpler as the book goes on instead of becoming more complex.  Maybe it's because he's finally getting the hang of this spy thing, or he's learning to keep his emotions under wraps from everyone, including the reader.  But I missed hearing his thoughts and watching him reason his way through every move he makes, which you get up through his flight from China.  I suppose he's evolving, but it feels like it's happening off the page...or that we're just not told about it because the plot events are more important.

Which they're not.  The ending is predictable.  You'll see it coming a mile away.  I won't spoil it for you, but by two-thirds of the way through, there won't be any surprises left.  It's just a slosh to the end, juiced up by a little napalm.

Overall, however, it's still definitely worth a read.  The cloak-and-dagger stuff in Beijing is wonderful.  I felt like I was in Beijing.  The descriptions, the mannerisms, everything feels spot-on.  I can't imagine how intimidating a project this must have been.  Winslow's author's note at the end acknowledges this, and he sounds like a genuinely nice person who truly cares about his work.  I tip my hat to him for even taking on such a big project, and for bringing a new generation of readers to Trevanian's books.

Now, Mr. Winslow, can you please write me a solid female character who is NOT a hooker, courtesan, slut, or drug dealer? Please?