Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Book review: Blow, Bruce Porter (1993)

From what I could gather online from people’s comments, this book is better than the 2001 movie of the same name that is a vehicle for Johnny Depp. This book is a cracker, though the messiness and complexity of real life is probably the reason why the movie did so badly at the box office. George Jung’s (pronounced with a hard “J”) life, starting in regional Massachusetts, is certainly interesting (and I won’t give away the ending, in case you want to see the movie or read the book) and it is, in a sense, a history of the cocaine trade in the US and Central America.

The chronology of the book begins when George grew up in the 40s but the first chapter opens with incarceration after George was convicted for smuggling marijuana from Mexico and sentenced to a spell in a low-security prison. Inside it, he met a man named Carlos Lehder, a Colombian whose favourite song was John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and who deeply admired Hitler. Once George was freed he started planning ways to import the more profitable drug, which had just started, in the 60s, to catch on on the west coast of the US.

This book is also a portrait of an individual. The portrait is not always flattering. George is not a perfect man. His interest in drugs had been encouraged by an early interest in Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac and although George loved his father he was independent-minded from adolescence. As well as liking to do things his own way, George was also intensely physical and excelled at sport at secondary school. Once the money started to come in – he stashed something like US$68 million away in an offshore bank account – his lifestyle changed radically and he was conspicuous in his consumption. Perhaps if he had been a different kind of person (he also used cocaine heavily) the story might have been different. As far as I know he is still alive; the chronicle ends after a period of time has elapsed.

Porter does a good job of keeping a significant number of balls up in the air at once. This is a story heavy on specifics and biography written as journalism is a suitable way to use the material as it allows for the inclusion of a large number of salient facts. Facts like the types of cars George owned, where he secreted the proceeds of his deals, the types of aircraft he used to bring cocaine from Colombia to the US, and portraits of his business partners, men who, like George, are rendered in detail so that you can get an idea of what kinds of people they were (or, in some cases, what kind of people they are). Porter talked with a number of different people to gather information, including George himself.

As I said at the beginning of this post, his is not a simple story. It twists and turns, goes off on tangents and comes back to the mainstream, and ropes in folds a range of colourful characters all of whom, it must be emphasised, were (are) real. This is not fiction. And keep in mind when it was first published. Unlike the popular movies and Netflix TV shows we are served up as entertainment these days that have drugs as a subject, and which often enough have some factual basis, this book is actual history.

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