If you’re still looking for a summer read that doesn’t wilt in the heat, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Don Winslow’s The Kings of Cool, prequel to Savages (the movie adaptation of which oopened in theaters this July). The riveting Savages was built on short, Tumblr-post-sized chapters. In fact, chapter one memorably contained only two words, the second of which is “you.” Even if you’re flipping actual wood-pulp pages, Savages seems designed for scrolling; compulsively hitting refresh for more.
Kings of Cool not only doesn’t mess with that fast-paced formula, it turns out to be the stronger novel. For all its back-and-forth dialogue and racing-pulse drama, Savages was at times too one-dimensional in its plotting: Mexican drug cartel kidnaps O (short for Ophelia), Ben and Chon race to get their SoCal rich-girl-friend-with-benefits back.
Parallel narratives add considerable depth to Winslow's prequel. In addition to providing more background on how Ben and Chon got started in the business of hydroponic cannabis (the duo goes grow-house-hunting with a real-estate agent) and O’s dysfunctional relationship with her Orange County serial trophy mom, Paqu (“passive aggressive queen of the universe”), Kings flashes back to Southern California in the ’60s, when drugs became widespread in the laid-back Laguna Beach surfing community—and it turns out the trio’s parents had quite a lot to do with spreading them.
We follow Chon’s dad, John, as he transforms from a 14-year-old skateboarder into a big-time weed dealer under the tutelage of Doc, a larger-than-life surfer Jesus who turns drug profits into free tacos for the hippie multitude. Those lazy, hazy, crazy days soon become a business to be protected, though.
A generation later, gentle-soul Ben has yet to learn similar lessons about the changing game of California marijuana dealing as The Kings of Cool begins. He blows off a tough guy with an “old-school stare” who demands a cut of their profit—"because it’s Ben’s understanding that no one controls the marijuana market.” Separately Chon, an Iraq combat vet under no such illusions, nips a few potential problems in the bud—with a baseball bat. They’re stepping on big toes, an organization that has police on their payroll. By the time Ben and Chon realize that things have developed into a....situation, and O, who assigns numbers to her mom’s many husbands, finds out the identity of her birth father, the past has more than caught up to the present for all three of them.