Saturday, March 12, 2011

An unauthorizable biography

Last time I wrote about drugs, reviewing Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town,  I profiled a book that sought to explore and preach about the way a substance took root and did damage and how much it cost a wide swath of the nation.  Dominic Streatfeild lays no subtitled spin on his subject.  His approach mirrors thick profiles of historical figures or movements or ideas.  In Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, we simply learn about where cocaine came from, the people who discovered it, the people who converted it from coca leaves into powder and then (much later) smokable rocks, and the people who use it, sell it, sell it big time, and die because of it - either the violence surrounding its international trade or the addictive effects of the substance itself.  Streatfield works hard to collect these stories, traveling to Columbia and Austria, conducting extensive conversations with experts in the field, who speak from university research labs, city streets and prison cells.

"Of all the interviewees I contacted in the course of researching this book - including a Nobel Laaureate and a number of extremely serious scientists - Ross came across as the brightest.  By far," Streatfeild writes of the man credited with inventing Ready Rock, later known as "crack."  He proceeds to tell us the story of how Ricky Ross grew up, his early forays into crime, and the events during and after his attempt to get a college education.  It's obvious Streatfeild, who pops in and out of each scene and segway as a first-person narrator chasing the story, thinks this story is unfortunate.  It's also obvious that he thinks it's fascinating, and his enthusiasm and curiosity create a readable and thorough account of the drug's role throughout history.

To anyone who reads the news and endeavors to know what lies way back behind major forces shaping the substance and face of crime in America today, cocaine deserves this biography.  Streatfeild explains how cocaine evolved into role it plays now: from the tradition of chewing coca leaves in South and Central America; to Freud and his colleagues' risky and feverish experimentation with medical uses for the drug; to the elusive and extravagant kingpins of the 1970s and 1980s; to the modern American law enforcement war against the powder and Mr. Ross's rock, the one that will keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

However terrible the consequences of his creation, I am grateful to Streatfeild for giving Ross a voice.  Though "unauthorized," the book treats cocaine and the people who shaped its history quite fairly.  The author's attention to detail and thoroughness bring the experience of reading it to a place both compelling and educational, and satisfy every curiosity a reader could develop about the subject.  He doesn't skimp on the way the drug feels, why it holds addictive and remunerative appeal, and its widespread commercial and medical use before it became cast as a vice.  And I'm quite glad to know, once and for all, what cocaine has to do with my favorite hometown cola.


Vladimir said...

I think he was unfairly positive about some of the people he interviewed. Drug lords and traffickers do awful things, in order to succeed in their business, and it felt like Streatfield wanted to gloss over that for some of them. The DEA agents who are engaging in violence and admitting they're not getting anywhere are somehow still praised, although Streatfield does criticize the politicians, intelligence agencies, and corrupt foreign agents who get in their way.

What Book Today said...

You raise a fair point. Streatfeild's treatment of dealers' violence isn't terribly reflective; my counter to that would be that he tries to keep focus on expanding his own and the reader's knowledge central subject and its role in people's lives rather than presenting the lives in and of themselves. Have you read Mark Bowdon's book Killing Pablo? Once journalists focus in on a particular kingpin, the light seems much harsher.

Deborah Lawrenson said...

I'd agree. Vladimir raises an important issue, but surely the point of objectivity is that it doesn't condone or vilify.

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