Friday, July 28, 2006

The awful fullness of life

We sat in his backyard under the trees.
He drank beer.
I opened a bottle of red wine.
That is when he said it had taken him a thousand years, a hundred lives to get to this moment, this place, this pain, this understanding.
It all made perfect sense to me.
That is what this book is about.
Getting to this place.”

Charles Bowden’s latest book A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an undercover drug warrior tells the story of a very successful undercover narcotics officer in an unnamed American city.

The story is true, or as true as these things can be. Possibly even more true. Bowden is one of the great writers of our time and he has gone far, far deeper into the drug world, the heart of which encompasses both sides of the U.S. and Mexican border, than any other writer, great or not.

This man he portrays, this undercover narcotics officer, is one of the very best at what he does. He would never open up his life to such an extent for anyone less competent than himself or someone who did not understand the world in which he operates. Bowden is the only writer on earth that could have gotten this story. No one else is that competent as a writer and as knowledgeable about the life, as they call it.

Probably the main reason that Bowden is not better known is that he is so difficult to categorize. His early books are classified as “environmental.” He was friends with Edward Abbey, he wrote a prophetic book about the loss of water resources in the southwest. That makes a certain kind of sense. But then he became something more. In Blue Desert, Desierto, Blood Orchid and Blues for Cannibals he describes the Sonoran desert, among other things, in simply incredible prose. Many pages and paragraphs are truly as good as it gets. He also works with photographers. Jauarez: the laboratory of our future showcases the work of Mexican photojournalists and tells the story of hundreds of poor, young Mexican girls who were kidnapped and murdered. Others describe beautiful places and peoples who are endangered by encroaching modernity and the destruction that accompanies it. And he is a journalist. He had unusual access to Charles Keating and wrote or co-wrote several books on the S&L scandal. His previous book, Down by the River told the true story of a DEA agent whose nephew was killed.

A Shadow in the City is journalism. It is the kind of journalism that used to be called “new.” Bowden does not just describe the man’s actions. He is inside his head, speaking the man’s thoughts.
“Here are some rules, like all rules made to be broken. never use product, that will take away the edge. never relax, that will let danger near. Never get close to anyone, that will destroy judgement. Never share information, that will cause death and ruin. Never trust, never, never, trust.

Never drink to excess, or when the moment comes that drink takes over the senses, be in a safe place. Never believe there is a safe place because that place will become a tomb.

Never hurry, no deal is ever better than the deal not done.

Never make a mistake, eyes are watching.

And enjoy the wait, savor it, cherish it, languish in it.

The wait is the test. Impatience is a tell, a clue to others, blood in the water, a signal for a feeding frenzy and destruction.

Tires whir down the night street, the wait continues, and what is your favorite book?“

Yes, this man has some issues. He lives in a world of which most of us are only dimly aware, at best.

The arc of the story concerns two major heroin deals, over half a billion dollars street value total which leads to a great number of individuals being imprisoned in three or four countries. Note that this is no way portrayed as any kind of victory. Many of the details surrounding these and other deals bring new depth to the term ”bittersweet.“

But the book is not about the deals. It is about the man and the the things he has seen, the things that haunt him. They include:

A young girl, strangled in a snuff video.

The death his young son and the resulting heartbreak that can never be fixed, and only barely tolerated.

A Jew in the concentration camps finding reasons to live in the worst of human degradations.

The sickness that comes with destroying people, especially people one comes to like, perhaps even love, and respect.

The despondency of working for a bureaucracy of losers you view as less honorable and hard working and ultimately less moral than the drug dealers whose lives you destroy.

The “innocent informants,” high school losers, wanting to be popular, conned into dealing drugs by this narc to become popular. How does it feel having targeted people like that after they commit suicide when the bust comes down and they face long prison terms?

A beautiful woman who lives only for her children. A love story that is not to be. A casual betrayal. Putting one you love in prison for life. Why? Out of habit? What kind of person does something like that? How does it feel?

These are the stories that help define a man who cannot define himself. A predator ferociously waging a war in which he does not believe, doing a job of which he is not proud and taking great pride in doing it better than everyone else.
When you sense danger, instantly move, fuck reasons, don’t sort it out, move, and if you must, kill, but for God’s sake don’t pause, don’t ponder, because you get only one serious mistake and then it’s over.

The reason for the move, the reason you act, the signal you have picked up, well, you can sort that out later. Maybe you will never understand what you sensed. That does not matter. But paying attention to this feeling, this sudden warning shout within your body, that does matter. And if this shout is loud and raw, and you bring that gun up and fire, then shoot to to kill, empty the whole fucking clip except one fucking round, don’t try any finesse, forget marksmanship. Obliterate the thing that threatens you.

He has learned that the best backup is your willingness to stab someone over and over and over, to be hyper-aggressive.“

The world of guns and murder and multi-million dollar drug deals are far outside my personal frame of reference, but in my distant youth I was involved in countless small time drug deals (for personal use only) in many countries on four continents. I understand what he says about paying attention to the feeling. I’ve had a gun pointed at my head in D.C. during the murder capital years and been threatened with a knife in several African countries without feeling the least bit of fear. Other times I was in situations in which everything seemed just fine but I felt intense fear and walked away as fast as I could. You rarely know if that kind of fear is justified when you walk away, but I’ve always trusted my instincts and my lack of fear in seemingly dangerous situations takes away any macho bullshit about cowardice. The only time I ever learned for sure was one time in Tunisia when I walked away from a deal and was immediately accosted by the police. All my experience tells me that what the narc in Bowden’s story says is true. There is such a thing as extra sensory perception and I can well believe that people in those kinds of dangerous situations better damn well pay attention to it. Like he says, so many times throughout the book that it is a mantra, "no deal is ever better than the deal not done."

But as much as the particulars of this book are about the deals, the book itself is not. It is about humanity and the struggle to hold onto it in obscenely degrading circumstances.
He remembers when his boy died, and then the bad times came and the viciousness poured out of him like lava, and the killings followed and the beatings and the sense of being numb to what he was doing but not near numb enough to what he had endured, he remembers that time and how, finally, he realized he was crossing lines, lines inside himself.

So he holed up for three days and wrote, tried to sort it out, to make some sense of the evil he felt within himself and the evil he saw around him. And the dead boy also, he tried to face that.

Maybe that is alone. Or maybe that is finally facing the awful fullness of life.

A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an undercover drug warrior is an important book. It tells a story that needs to be told and is well-written far beyond any other story of its kind. If there is a moral, it is not the one you would expect and it is neither simple nor straightforward. Take from it what you will.