Novels about the Drug Wars still seem to be few and far between. At least, I’m not finding many of them. Maybe we need more distance from it, or maybe it’s just so big that not many writers want to tackle it. Whatever the case, so far Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog is the standard by which all others are—or should be—compared.
Using that standard, Rain Dogs by Baron R. Birtcher doesn’t do too bad a job. It’s not as broad in scope as The Power of the Dog, but it’s not trying to be, either. Where the latter covers roughly thirty years (or more) of the characters’ lives, Rain Dogs all takes place in 1976. America has bicentennial fever, the Bee Gees are about to all but destroy rock music with disco, and the first rumblings of the Drug Wars are beginning to take place.
It starts with our protagonist, whose true name we never learn—something I didn’t realize till I’d finished the book and he tells us his new identity—telling of his modest little hundred-thousand dollar pot growing operation in the wilds of Humboldt County, California. This is contrasted with what’s going on in Mexico, with Miguel Zamora setting up a cocaine smuggling business with the cartels in Bogotá and Medellín.
Our protagonist just wants to be left alone to ply his trade. He won’t have anything to do with the stronger drugs like cocaine, but he can’t stop the change that’s happening—including roving bands of Colombian “rippers” who are trying to shut down all independent operators in Northern California with a combination of violence and thievery.
And it doesn’t help when he has to hire a guy he doesn’t know to help bring in the harvest early in an effort to beat the rippers.
Things only go downhill from there.
There are things about Mr. Birtcher’s writing that I don’t like. Even when he’s inside the first-person POV of our protagonist, he can’t seem to resist doing a little head-hopping. Sometimes, when he’s doing the other third-person scenes, he’ll change POVs in the middle of paragraphs—even in really short paragraphs.
If done right, there’s nothing wrong with the omniscient, head-hopping POV. For epic works, it’s one of the best ways to tell the story. With multiple characters and story lines, it saves a lot of space.
But you’ll notice my caveat: if it’s done right. In my opinion, not all of Mr. Birtcher’s POV switches are done gracefully or correctly. Plus, he has a problem with the words—or non-words—alright and ’til. If you’re Shakespeare, you can use ’til. Otherwise, please use the more correct till.
These problems aside, Rain Dogs is a good story. You really know the characters by the end, and when it’s over you’re left with the feeling that something really good was destroyed by inevitable change and not a little greed. Yes, I know: being a drug dealer isn’t something you can call good. But that’s really the point. The fact he can make you feel that way, like something precious was lost, is the mark of a good writer. When we can believe in his anti-heroes enough that we’re sorry to see them go, he’s done his job as a storyteller.
And, technical problems aside, that’s about the most we can ask of a writer.