Saturday, 15 August 2009

Review: No Angel, Jay Dobyns (2009)

We don't often think about the stress of being a police officer, a cop. But police, and especially undercover police, often suffer loss due to the complex and shadowy nature of their work. I started to think about post-traumatic stress while reading this book. Not only police but also spies, victims of crime such as those involved in terrorism, and journalists.

I thought about Adam Shand, a reporter who was held up at gunpoint while working in South Africa, and whose book I reviewed last month.

Dobyns' book, authored with ghost writer Nils Johnson-Shelton, is largely true. "All of the events, persons, and alleged crimes that occur in No Angel actually happened or existed," the Author's Note states. There was some telescoping of conversations and events in the narrative. There was some invented incidental detail. This is not a history book. Dobyns reaches for the best epithet and comes up with 'memoir'.

Unfortunately a lot gets lost. Names of main characters blend one with the next. Events that seem to be important disappear in the story, or are blended with other, similar events. The people and events make up a composite, a simulacrum of reality. Much is lost, especially those events that are seminal for the story. Big things get wasted in the crush of detail. Details lose their outline and wash into others.

Dobyns and Johnson-Shelton also err in telling us about Bird's dissolution. We are told that he is running too close to the edge and confusing the fiction of his sting with his own reality. We don't really need to be told because we can see it happening. The drama of the undercover cop is best seen from without. Inside himself Dobyns, aka 'Bird', does not recognise the signs and delineations of the world he has entered.

There is also a bit too much stars-and-stripes bravado. This may have to do with Dobyns' post-sting trauma. After the trap was closed down on the Hells Angels, Dobyns was outed as an undercover and became unable to work in the field. He chased compensation from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unit. Convictions that seemed so promising turned to dust. The Angels took out a contract on him. He turned to God. He understood how much he needed his family. It would be close to the mark to label him a 'broken man'.

But the good v evil paradigm that raises its ugly head at various points throughout the book becomes galling. There's a little too much hardboiled righteousness. Some of the prose is a tad on the nauseating side. Dobyns may be unaware of the effect this chest-thumping creates as Bird battles the forces of evil, but Johnson-Shelton should not have been. You can't convince people you are right if you don't show them how you made mistakes, and there is a bit too much concrete in this statue of liberty. When Dobyns visited New York and went to Ground Zero, I mentally paused.

And the bikers seem a bit oafish to inspire true dread. The backstory has been sanitised a little too well. Sure, there was that woman they stomped and killed. More on that, please. But the endless high-speed rides through the red dust of Arizona do not raise your hackles, neither do the multiple gun deals Dobyns conducts in his persona of Bird. We want to know more but perhaps these guys are just not as big as they seem, not as nasty, and not as wealthy. We've come to expect more.

There is no doubt that most of the work was Johnson-Shelton's. Dobyns does not strike you as a very deep thinker or subtle observer. The ghost writer did as much as he could, but Dobyns' terrible need to reclaim some dignity after burning out on the job means we are saddled with a lot of guff.

The potential to do more was there, only there was no way to reach it. Johnson-Shelton had to work with his materials, and Dobyns provided, I feel, precious little in the way of coherency and detail. The ball won't bounce.

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