The King of Cool, Don Winslow

How the SoCal transplant became a best-selling author by delving into Laguna Beach's legends

The King of Cool, Don Winslow

Fuck Taco Bell.

This is what Don Winslow is probably thinking as he stands in line at the Taco Bell at 699 S. Coast Hwy. in Laguna Beach. It's a Tuesday morning in late June, and there's a photographer nearby snapping pictures of Winslow. The fat guy working the cash register is giving him the stink-eye, and the restaurant manager is waving his arms in the air.

"I told you already—no photos inside the restaurant," the manager whines.

Don Winslow, Laguna's taco bard
John Gilhooley
Don Winslow, Laguna's taco bard
Winslow helped to scout Laguna locations for the film version of Savages
John Gilhooley
Winslow helped to scout Laguna locations for the film version of Savages

"What are you complaining to me for, dude?" an innocent Winslow asks. "I'm just trying to buy a taco."

For the purposes of this story, Winslow is attempting to purchase a Doritos Locos Taco, a national sensation that's really nothing more than a steaming clod of cheesy beef dumped inside a stale, orange shell. He has no intention of eating the thing, which is just a prop for the surreptitious photo shoot. Later, over a trio of far more salubrious Baja-style fish tacos at 230 Forest Avenue in downtown Laguna, Winslow tells Jean, his wife of 28 years, about his taco troubles. "We were taking pictures inside the Taco Bell," he explains. "Which seemed to upset Taco Bell to no end. They did not want us to shoot inside Taco Bell lest we reveal secrets."

Of course, Winslow's only joking about revealing the fast-food joint's secrets, but ironically, he has done just that with Kings of Cool, his just-released prequel to his New York Times-best-selling 2010 book, Savages, the film version of which was released on July 6, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek and John Travolta. It concerns fictional Laguna Beach pot dealers Ben and Chon and their mutual love-interest, O, a love triangle that suffers coitus interruptus at the hands of the Mexican cartels.

Kings of Cool tells how the three fell into the drug business in the first place, how they're really just following the paths laid out for them by their parents, who turn out to be members of a secretive drug ring called the "Association." The story bounces back and forth between Laguna Beach in the mid-2000s and the late 1960s and profiles, among other characters, surfing weed dealer Doc Holliday, nicknamed Taco Jesus, who gives out free tacos at the same Taco Bell where Winslow has just been hassled, one of the oldest remaining in the chain.

In fact, that Taco Bell used to be the epicenter of Orange County's drug scene. As I revealed in my 2010 book, Orange Sunshine, the restaurant was just a block away from Mystic Arts World, a famous head-shop, art gallery and countercultural market run by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which inspired Winslow's "Association," a secretive group of hippies that smuggled hashish from Afghanistan in Volkswagen buses to fund an international LSD-distribution network.

While the reaction to both Savages and Kings of Cool has been overwhelmingly positive—both books won rave reviews by Janet Maslin of The New York Times, who called the former "lean, mean, piercingly funny" and the new release "too damn good to be polarizing"—here in Orange County, not everyone has been enthusiastic about his portrayal of Laguna's shady past, even though he uses the prism of fiction. In October 2010, Winslow was speaking at the 11th annual Men of Mystery event in Irvine when the owner of a now-shuttered Laguna Beach bookstore buttonholed him. "I want you to know that I won't be recommending your book to people," he huffed.

Winslow was too polite to respond. He's used to dealing with critics, as well as meeting people who think they somehow inspired one or another of his various characters. In the acknowledgments for Kings of Cool, Winslow does thank certain friends for sharing their stories, a debt he says that can best be repaid by not mentioning their names. "Guys I hang out with, do martial arts with and surf with were telling me stories," he tells me. "I don't think you can hang around here very long without that history, that culture, coming into your awareness."

Winslow points at the ocean. "It's like a wave," he elaborates. "Look out there. There's always something on the surface that you can see. But there's always also something under the surface that's causing what you see on the surface, that view and the people who inhabit it, the surf world and—let's face it—the dope world.

"There is a very cool aspect to it," Winslow continues. "The whole country has always thought that California was cool. The migration went west, the culture flushes back east, so in 1964, you've got kids singing 'Surfin' Safari' in Kansas, and it's cool. It's definitely cool."

* * *

Before he migrated west and flushed California's culture back east and beyond, Winslow grew up in Rhode Island and New Orleans, surrounded by legends. His father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and saw action at Guadalcanal, and Winslow remembers late nights eavesdropping, entranced by his dad's war stories. His neighbors included Mafia-tied families, which explains why he has never been shy about writing about organized crime. "They were there," he says matter-of-factly. "And I knew them."

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