[Paleopsych] Book World: Honor Among Dealers

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Honor Among Dealers

    Reviewed by Steve Bogira
    Sunday, July 31, 2005; BW15

    Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior
    By Charles Bowden
    Harcourt. 309 pp. $24

    Charles Bowden's A Shadow in the City is a journey into the mind of
    one veteran soldier in the war on drugs as he increasingly doubts his
    mission. For more than 20 years, Joey O'Shay has deceived people for a
    living. And he's been a master at his work.

    O'Shay isn't his real name, and Bowden won't tell us the city where he
    works. He seems to be a local narcotics cop detailed to the feds. He
    started in his mid-twenties, kicking in doors on raids with his crew.
    On one bust, a man emerged from a bedroom with a .357, fired at
    O'Shay, and missed. O'Shay shot the man twice in the chest, killing
    him. The close call and the slaying of a man didn't deter O'Shay. He
    found himself riding the adrenaline rush, "this sense of being totally
    alert because in an instant you may be totally dead."

    But shootouts aren't common in the drug war; most of the battles are
    psychological. That part of the job thrills O'Shay even more. His work
    initially consists mainly of getting addicts to reveal their sources:
    "He finds people who will do anything to get high and finds he gets
    high by finding them and using them." Moving up from addicts to petty
    dealers to suppliers of kilos from Mexico and Colombia, O'Shay
    eventually poses as a dealer himself. He doesn't participate in the
    actual busts, and often suppliers go to prison unaware that it was
    O'Shay who did them in.

    Most undercover drug cops spend a year or two on the job before
    they've had enough, Bowden says. O'Shay stays at it, wearing out
    partners "like sets of tires." He can't quit. Obsession "is the
    ultimate addiction, the strongest drug because it gives the one thing
    other drugs never deliver. It gives meaning." He's sustained by the
    certainty that he is good and his prey are evil.

    But as the years march on, O'Shay starts questioning that conviction.
    He comes to believe that the drug kingpins work much harder than his
    fellow narcs, that they're honest "in their own filthy way." And he
    can't help but realize that the drugs keep flowing in spite of his

    Most of A Shadow in the City revolves around a deal involving millions
    of dollars worth of pure Colombian heroin. O'Shay develops an
    affection for the supplier, a Caribbean woman identified only as
    Gloria. His skillful efforts result in the seizure of a large cache of
    heroin -- and Gloria's arrest. One night, he begins to write down how
    he feels about the "intricate, filthy, disgusting maze" he concocted
    to snare her. "I have more respect for the drug dealers I took down
    than the majority of the bureaucracy I work around," he writes.
    "Tonight I will drink enough to numb the fact I have destroyed some
    other humans and most likely their innocent families."

    The book's power is diminished by its total dependence on unnamed
    sources and pseudonyms for all the cops and all the dealers. In the
    drug-enforcement sphere, confidential informants are a necessary evil,
    but the secrecy allows for scamming, and the results must be viewed
    skeptically. Likewise in the world of journalism.

    Bowden is a gifted writer, but his book can be hard going, with its
    disjointed, hallucinatory glimpses of O'Shay's parallel personae as
    cop, dealer, father and seeker of truth. And he strains at times in
    painting O'Shay as a maestro of narcs: "He can read a face in a
    glance, know a move before it happens. Sense what someone else will do
    before the thought crosses their mind." And leap tall buildings in a
    single bound?

    A Shadow in the City is a condemnation of the drug war, with a top
    officer saying the point of the war eludes him. But it's also a
    fascinating personal story about a man whose search for meaning in his
    life makes him reject his life's work. ·

    Steve Bogira is the author of "Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes
    in an American Criminal Courthouse."

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