Inside the Drug War

Charles Bowden's book about an undercover DEA agent is ambitious, but it suffers from near-insufferable prose

Tucson's Charles Bowden has enjoyed much acclaim for his reporting on the U.S.-Mexico border in magazines like Harpers and books like Down by the River. His latest effort, A Shadow in the City, reads more like a meditative pulp novel than an exposé or polemic.

Its subject is Joey O'Shay, an alias for a man who has spent the lion's share of his adult life undercover with the DEA. Bowden can't disclose anything that might reveal his identity, so all we really know about this real-life fellow is that he lives in a place called "the city" and is equally consumed with and tortured by his work. The work is setting up drug deals and setting up drug dealers. And not the relatively small ghetto fiefdoms seen on TV shows like The Wire. Hell, even Mexican heroin is pedestrian for a narco snob like O'Shay. For him, it's mostly Columbian heroin and a shadowy global network of dealers and their employees.

O'Shay prefers working with Columbians, because they'll kill you and your loved ones if the deal sours: "They are punctilious about business obligations." This stands in contrast to the 9-to-5 types he detests, but who are his colleagues. Eventually, he comes to respect the dealers because their work ethic is far more in sync with his own.

O'Shay is a fascinating subject. Going on 50, he's estranged from his children and has no serious romantic partner. Nor does he get any moral satisfaction from his job, as he's come to see that the war on drugs is a futile struggle. He knows he's ruining lives for a living, but is less sure of everything else.

The lack of any named sources, coupled with the paucity of any other real reference points, creates a weird sort of claustrophobia in A Shadow. Bowden offers us a fragmented personal history of O'Shay, creating a profile of an inner life whose worldview hovers between hard-boiled nihilism and a desperate hunger for redemption. (To unwind, O'Shay pores over Viktor Frankl's holocaust memoir, Man's Search for Meaning.)

Bowden attempts something entirely unique in A Shadow, which is to take a narrative we're used to finding in a social and political context, or sensationalized on screen, and shining it on the soul of an individual. What are the spiritual consequences of the war on drugs? What does it mean when you're talented at something you despise? When you've built your life around a false identity?

Bowden's prose at times borders on the insufferable. Clearly, he's enamored with his protagonist to the point where his voice is lost in a portentous and shockingly repetitive spiel on O'Shay's world. However intentional this might be, one gets the sense that Bowden is trying very hard to become something of a hard guy himself.

Far be it from this critic to wax like a member of the Parents Television Council, but something about the casual use of "bitches" and "fucking their bitches" and other snippets describing women as life's "pit stops" is less sexist than it is pretentious. Bowden has seen the fetid hindquarters of urban America, and boy, does he want you to know it. Witness this excerpt from one of his many decathlon sentences: "... this other city that does not officially exist, that flows ceaselessly out of sight and mind of most citizens, the other city that provides the easy women, the blow jobs, the backroom games, the spike in the arm, the line on the coffee table in condos rising high over the lights of night, the city of pasties and G-strings and lap dances and expensive whores and bathhouses and stolen goods and hot cars and fists and knives and bodies dumped on the damp leaves in thrumming woods, the city where muscle has a role and so does aggression and there are no rules but the pretense at rules and there is no security but the quickness of the eyes and the hands and the fingers."

And there's more where that came from. It's probably somewhere around page 142, where bits like, "Because in his business you are either a predator or you are taken down" become entirely indigestible. At times, the writing devolves into an unintended parody of crime fiction.

Since neither O'Shay nor Bowden are political crusaders, A Shadow remains refreshingly free of trite political sermonizing. But however original its themes are, they're recycled to the point that we receive about 11 versions of a sentence that says: Joey O'Shay is tough and a tortured soul, an unsung spiritual casualty of the war on drugs.

Nevertheless, it tries telling an original story within the crevice of a larger, perpetually underreported master narrative. This doesn't make it more readable, but one has to tip his cap to the author for his willingness to deviate from that which has worked for him in the past.