Tuesday, April 29, 2014

High times: The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son and the Golden Age of Marijuana

Doubleday, 2014
249 pp


In many ways, the era of piracy and the era of pot are an uncanny match. Both the pirates and the marijuana smugglers cursed and cussed, sang bawdy songs, gambled, whored, profaned the holy days, gave in to lust, reveled in uncleanliness, and were greedy for life, liberty and merriment, which they gulped down to the last.

The Last Pirate is a wonderful book, very entertaining but at the same time very serious. It charts both the rise and fall of a man whose career generated millions but whose addictions ultimately left him living under a bridge in Miami.  It also examines how the author's life was affected by The Old Man's highs and lows, leaving him without a dad throughout his childhood.

When the author, "Little Tony" Doukoupil  was six,  "The Old Man" walked out on his family.  In the author's first  six years, Big Tony may not have qualified as father of the year (leaving his kid alone in a Disney hotel, doing heroin while his son had a bout of serious croup), but all the same, Little Tony adored his dad. Before Big Tony left, the family lived off the proceeds of Big Tony's wide-ranging, and very profitable dope-smuggling enterprise, which lasted more or less over a 20-year span of time. His crew consisted of a very small group of trusted friends, but their cleverness & caution fed the big machine of sellers and users in the U.S. After Big Tony's departure, the money started to dwindle, and when needed most, Big Tony was in such a cocaine and heroin-addled state that he couldn't remember where he'd buried the coolers of cash he'd stashed from New England to New Mexico.  It was a big step down in the author's life -- going from one of the top private schools in Miami to becoming the poor kid was only part of how his father's absence affected his childhood.   The author grew up from age six on without his dad, who in his mind's eye would become an  outlaw and a pirate, engaging in the same sorts of renegade activities as pirates and smugglers of earlier times. Just recently, though,  Tony Dokoupil the younger became a dad, and haunted by his absent father,  set out to find out what he could about him. According to the author, it was his first Father's Day card that made him "terrified of the genes I carry and the man I may become." It also prompted him to discover his father's story so as to find some loophole in the account of his "father's rise and fall,"  something that would tell him that genetics aren't everything.

From various sources, the author has recreated as much of his father's history as possible, trying to form a better picture of who this man was and what he did.  All he knew about his dad before starting to research this book had come to him only in "scraps."  He goes into his father's  family and childhood, then looks at the early days of his dad's dope experiences and how from there he became the head of one of the biggest pot-smuggling operations in American history.  It's often funny, and at times eye opening, revealing for example,  just how close America came in 1970s to totally decriminalizing marijuana, or a drug-related scandal in DC starring Peter Bourne, Jimmy Carter's chief drug policy adviser, or  how DEA agents in South America would  turn a blind eye for their own cut of the business.  But on a more personal level, the story is much more on the troubling side, as Big Tony's family gets caught up in his decline primarily because of Big Tony's addictions, his "passion."  The book also reveals, among other things,  a brief history of  the early days of marijuana legislation, and how the golden years of pot smuggling started to decline later on due to a) Reagan's policies and the War on Drugs,  and b) the rise of less-risky homegrown, better-quality marijuana. 

There's so much more to this book, and I've only briefly touched on it here.   It's very honest, so much so that at times it's downright painful to read, but at the same time, some parts of this book are actually funny.  When it comes right down to it, he says, it's all about the choices people  make in life -- and he's absolutely correct.  What a good book! Definitely recommended.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown

Viking, 2013
404 pp


"They weren't just nine guys in a boat; they were a crew."

Considering that I'm not at all a sports person, it seems odd that I would even be reading a book about the University of Washington crew team.  I didn't know what to expect, but after reading the first chapter I was totally hooked.  It only got better from there.

It's probably a given that almost everyone is familiar with the fact that at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, Jesse Owens walked away with four gold medals, throwing the Nazi ideal of the Aryan supremacy right back in Hitler's face. Another thing about that year's Olympic games that most people are familiar with is the call for a boycott of the games, as rumors were circulating about what was really going on in Germany and the repressive measures of the Nazis. But it's very unlikely that anyone other than sports historians or people who are really into the history of the Olympic games know about the crew team from the University of Washington who literally battled the odds and not only made it to the games, but went on to win the gold medal.  The Boys in the Boat not only takes the readers through the crew's efforts in getting there, but also goes into great depth about the crew members, especially the central figure in this book, Joe Rantz.  His story lies at the heart of this book, but the author also includes stories about the other members of the team, a look at the Depression in the US, and what was going on in Germany at the time. He also examines the sport of crewing itself -- especially the prominence of the teams from elite Ivy League universities.  As he notes, "the center of gravity in American collegiate rowing still lay somewhere between Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Ithaca, and Annapolis."

Joe's story is the best part of this book.  As an infant, his mother died and his father remarried a much younger woman who for some reason didn't get along with Joe, especially after she and Joe's father started having their own children. At age ten, Joe was told that he wouldn't be living with the family any longer, and he watched as they took off in a car for somewhere unknown.  He pretty much had to fend for himself although a few people stepped up and helped him out. Joe was always good at school, and his older brother offered to take him in during his last high school year so that he would have a good shot at entering a good university, and he was accepted by UW, where he made it into one of the crew boats as a freshman. However, as a poor student in the university's "world of pressed trousers, of briar pipes and cardigan sweaters,"  Joe had to work for every penny he needed to stay in school, and he was often the target of students much more fortunate than himself.  However, some of the students who looked down on Joe had to eat crow as  they tried and failed at the crew team tryouts,  leaving mainly the sturdy farm boys to take the seats in the boat.  Crewing was not easy and there were a number of  mental factors keeping Joe from reaching his absolute best, but with the help of  some brilliant mentoring from the coaches, wisdom from the man whose boats were prized throughout the crewing world, support from an entire city and for Joe, the love of a good woman, he was able to surmount all of his obstacles and go on to become part of an extremely devoted team.

It's already known in the prologue that Joe and his team went on to win a gold medal in the Olympics, but it's the getting there that creates the drama and tension in this book. The way this story is put together is creative  and keeps the reader beyond interested. The author splits scenes between Joe's story, the effects of the Depression in America, what was going on in Nazi Germany and the leaders'  goal to create a fake reality for the rest of the world to see for PR purposes, the sport of crewing, and the team's story.  When all are combined all of these elements  not only firmly situate the book in historical time and place, but also make the reading much more rounded and compelling.

I have to say that I probably wouldn't have bought this book had it not been for an online reader friend who raved about it (thanks, Trish),  and that would have been a shame. There's only a couple of niggly things that I didn't care for. First comes the gushing descriptions of love between Joe and Joyce (okay -- we get it -- but not every time), and there was one spot when the team went to Poughkeepsie (p. 257) and the author notes the following in talking about where they were staying:
"In command of the cookhouse was the imposing figure of Evanda May Calimar, a lady of color and, as it would turn out, an awe-inspiring cook."
The fact that the cook was "a lady of color" has absolutely zero bearing on anything here at all. This kind of usage is one of my all-time biggest pet peeves that really rankles.  But in the big scheme of things, looking at the overall picture, I was really into this book, the research was extremely impressive, and The Boys in the Boat turned out to be one of the best reads of this year for me.  I've added it to the book group lineup to fill November's slot.   I HIGHLY recommend this book -- it's so good that I hated every second I wasn't reading it.