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American Desperado

My initial interest in crime started back around 2000 or so, when I started reading books about serial killers. Maybe this stemmed from reading Red Dragon when I was a teenager. I don’t know. But I got tired of reading about the killers after a while. I still dabbled in it from time to time, but not like I had in my initial burst of interest.

I do that with a lot of thing, so I didn’t think much of it.

But the interest in crime was apparently still there. I reluctantly began reading crime novels that took place in LA a couple years back because my daughter lives out there and it made me feel closer to her, in a weird way. The thinking was, if I couldn’t go out and visit her regularly, I could at least read stories that took place there.

That’s what led me Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker and some as yet unread Raymond Chandler novels.

Then you throw all that in with being a fan of Miami Vice. I’d pick up books that took place in Florida by authors as diverse as James W. Hall and Carl Hiassen. But the real interest there was what I think of as the Cocaine Cowboys days of the late 70s/early 80s. That’s where Miami Vice comes in, as well as Scarface and even Blow.

Miami in those days is a lot like the Chicago of the 30s, except instead of Mafia wiseguys making money off Prohibition, it’s Colombian cartels and their American colleagues importing drugs—chiefly cocaine—and getting filthy stinking rich off it. There was the same excess, the same debauchery, the same set of corrupt officials. This era fascinated me, partly, I supposed, because I lived through it. The 80s are to me what the 60s were to aging hippies. That’s when I came into my own, learned about the larger world, all that. That’s when I had that most interesting time of my youth, the part I look back on and miss in many ways.

When I began research into meth for my Lyle Villines novels, I started looking at documentary DVDs and books. One of the DVDs I discovered as a result was the documentary Cocaine Cowboys. Even though it wasn’t concerned with meth, I got it anyway because it did center on something of interest to me.

One of the characters interviewed for Cocaine Cowboys is a guy named Jon Roberts. Jon and his partner Mickey Munday imported the bulk of the Medellín Cartel. The stories these two tell are practically unbelievable—except that, they’re so out-there you have to believe them. I mean, how could you make this kind of thing up? Jon and his girlfriend, the model Toni Moon, getting mad at one another and destroying two Mercedes cars, then laughing about it the next morning. And buying two more Mercedes. Mickey—a real-life McGuyver—talking about buying a twin-prop airplane for over $900,000 in cash after having to ditch one just like it when law enforcement got too close.

All this and more is talked about in the book I just read, American Desperado: My Life—from Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright.

I learned about it when NPR had Mr. Roberts and Mr. Wright on for an interview about the book. The ways it’s written is different from most of these kind of books. Most of it is told by Jon, but Evan tried to document everything that he could, and most of it matches up. Of course, Jon was a criminal his whole life—he witnessed his father kill a man when he was seven—and criminals don’t exactly document their doings with the idea of writing their memoirs when they’re older.

One of the things that kept going through my head while I read this was that it almost seems as though Jon is bragging about what he’s done. But, hey, who wouldn’t? The Cocaine Cowboys documentary makes the claim that Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday imported $2.5 billion for the Medellín Cartel in the 80s. But, as Even Wright notes late in the book, that’s a very arbitrary number. The government estimate that Jon Roberts and Max Mermelstein—who was married into the Cartel—imported $2.3 billion is based on what Max told them. But Max didn’t know all the loads that were brought in because Jon didn’t like him. He portrays Max as a blowhard who liked to parade around and think of himself as el jefe—the boss. But because he was such a nervous Nelly, Jon didn’t let him in on all the details. The $2.3 billion estimate is a low-end one based on Max saying they brought in fifty-six tons of coke. On the high end, including flights that Jon and Mickey brought in independent of Max, the figure is $15 billion.

Whatever the true figure is, the bottom line is that these men imported about 80% of all the coke imported in the US during those years. Jon lost $150 million when the US captured Manuel Noriega in 1989. When Jon and Mickey were arrested, 250 local and federal law-enforcement personnel were involved and they hit 17 locations, seizing 12 airplanes, 21 cars and trucks, and 28 boats. Jon also owned Mephisto Stables and several expensive racehorses. In Cocaine Cowboys, Mickey says he owned whole neighborhoods.

This kind of stuff is too ridiculous to be false.

Jon was born John Riccobono in 1948, to Edie and Nat Roccobono in the Bronx. In fact, their apartment was above the Luna Restaurant, used by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather when Al Pacino kills the two guys with a pistol hidden in the restroom (in the movie the restaurant is called Louis’ Italian American Restaurant).

Jon was a Mafia blueblood (as Evan Wright calls it). His uncle Joseph was indicted in 1937 as a member of “Murder Incorporated,” a mostly Jewish syndicate ran by Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky that worked closely with the Italian Mafia. As Jon says later in the book, if you put a Jew and an Italian together, there’s gonna be a crime. His other uncle, Sam, was a capo and ran a large loan-sharking business. Father Nat, though, was the violent one: one of Lucky Luciano’s most trusted killers.

I won’t go into all the details of Jon’s biography—that’s what the book is for. But I will recommend reading this thing. Hollywood should be embarrassed that they haven’t come up with something as interesting as this. Well, actually, I’m not sure about that. If I wrote this as a crime novel, it wouldn’t be believed. Some of what happens stretches things that much, but proves the old adage of truth being stranger than fiction. Jon is the original Scarface in some ways, such as having a pet cougar named Cucha. In fact, in the extras of the Platinum Edition of Scarface, screenwriter Oliver Stone says he got a lot of the ideas for Tony Montana’s excesses from his research hanging around drug dealers in Miami in those days—including one who owned a tiger. And I think this is touched on in Cocaine Cowboys as well.

It’s an incredible, wild ride. You could read this as fiction. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t fiction. Yes, in some ways it’s Jon Roberts bragging about his life story. But to see it only that way is to possibly reveal that you’re jealous. The guy had the American Dream: houses, cars, money, racehorses, the works. But he paid for it, in a lot of ways. Who wants to be able to say they can kill somebody and it not bother them? Sure, it sounds macho, but would you really want to know you could do that? That it bothers you more to kill one of your racehorses because it broke a leg (or you doped it up till it was a mercy to kill the poor thing) than it does to kill somebody because they screwed up?

I write about that kind of world, but I don’t want to be in it. For me, it’s something to study from a distance. And if that means I’ll never be able to say I had $150 million in the bank, so be it. He had it and lost it, along with all the other toys he acquired.

And, in the end, I’m not sure if he’s as guilt-free as he likes to project. His sister Judy, who is also interviewed for the book, doesn’t think so. And Jon himself says things that makes me think maybe he’s not that way. He repeatedly points out times when someone died who should have lived, a good person. For instance, there’s an incident when he’s approaching a jockey who just on a race. This guy is one of the most beloved jockeys ever. Jon waves at the guy, and when the jockey raises his hand to wave back, he is literally struck by lightning and killed. Did God miss? I don’t know. Not if He’s perfect. But it does leave you wondering why it happened that way. And it left Jon feeling bad and asking what kind of justice there is in the world if someone like him can keep going while a good person gets killed.

Jon served a grand total of three years in prison for everything he did as an importer.

If you want to gain insight into the drug world of the 80s and what it is to grow up in a Mafia family, living like a true-life Tony Montana, read American Desperado. I think you’ll come away from it glad you did.

Later,

Gil

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Random Stuff

I don’t know how this post will work out. Some weeks, it’s like I’m investing so much in my creative writing that I’m tapped out when it comes to a blog subject. So, I’ll resort to talking about random stuff—hence the title.

I couldn’t finish Perdido Street Station, the China Miéville fantasy I mentioned in my last post. If you’ll go back and read the sample paragraph I put in that post, you’ll get an idea why. I really did try, but it was something like trying to go up a tall hill. You can see the end, but the farther you go, the more tired you get until, finally, you just give out before you reach the top. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t take it no more, and that’s how it was with this book.

It’s 710 pages in trade paperback, and I have no idea what the word count is. Well over 200,000, probably close to 250,000, at a guess. Possibly even more. Now, I have nothing against high word counts. After a first edit, Pipeline still clocks in at over 207,000 words—at least 17,000 words short of the amount I wanted to cut. I had hoped to get it down in the neighborhood of 190,000, preferably 180,000. And I’m considering some major surgery to get it down even farther than that. Maybe.

But we’re not talking about my novel here. I’m just trying to let you see that I have no objection to long novels. In fact, I like it when I can get involved for hours on end on a novel. I think that’s why I have a problem with short stories, because my main objection to them is that they end just when I’m getting immersed in their worlds.

Like I said in my last post, Miéville is British, which probably explains his wordiness. The sequel to Perdido Street Station, entitled The Scar, is just as big. He’s an inventive author, if this book is any indication. He combines steampunk, magic, a Dickensian setting in the city New Crobuzon, and peoples it with interesting races and characters. My personal opinion is that it’s based on London (no big surprise there), and he simply took the existing “races” there—the Indians, Pakistanis, etc—and turned them into literal races. He just gave them enough of a twist that you can’t exactly point and say, “This race in the book is the same as this one in the real world.” But that’s just a guess on my part.

The story is interesting, too, one of those that starts out minor and blows up big. I’ve always liked it when a story does that, where what’s happening has far larger implications than you think when you start it.

But every time you encounter a new setting, he has to give us a capsule history of the place. Yes, this is a staple in speculative fiction and fantasy in particular. In some ways, it’s necessary. We’re on a strange world that shares none of its history with ours, and fantasy readers like this kind of thing, thanks, I’m sure, to Tolkien’s exhaustive history of Middle-earth, the prototype of modern fantasy. Whether you like The Lord of the Rings or not, if you read fantasy, it’s there because Tolkien did it first.

I’ve lost patience with these mini-histories, though. They’re nice, and they up your word count, which helps you get the other half of what many readers want from fantasy: epic. Tad Williams, author of the wonderful Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, among others, calls it the Bloated Epic. But it’s what a lot of fantasy readers want. They want to immerse themselves in some fantastical land for weeks, months if you can pull it off. Some sf—and I’m thinking mainly of the Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton here—does the same thing.

Thanks to all this, though, there I was, closing in on the Big Finale, and I totally lost interest. I simply couldn’t do it anymore. I was on page 544, about halfway down. It was late, my eyes were blurring from reading and my brain was blurring from too many details. Miéville had spent something like a page and a half describing, in what seemed to me minute detail, an enclosed neighborhood called The Glasshouse. I was weary, tired of the weight of all these words. Great for atmosphere, but, in the end, I had to ask, “Why should I care?”

Why should I care about some quirky thing that happened in a given neighborhood? How does it move the story forward? (See my last post. Maybe there’s a theme developing here heh heh.) It’s neat that you can come up with these little details, but is it going to have some effect on the characters? If not, why is it there?

I used to complain about this kind of thing. I used to bitch because the things I’d grown up reading and loving were falling by the wayside. But in the last few years, I’ve learned a lot about what I need to do as a writer if I want to get published, and the standards have changed drastically in those years.

In all fairness, Perdido Street Station is copyright 2000. Things have changed a lot since then. As a rule, readers want you to get on with the story, not tell us little tidbits of how some old man tripped over a bottle and now the place is called Bottle Trip (I came up with that off the top of my head. I know it’s not very good).

Now, if two characters are talking about this, and it tells me something about one or both of them, that’s all to the good. Or, if this minor bit of history has an effect later in the story, and I can look back and say, “Oh, wow. Didn’t see that one coming,” then it’s fine.

So I put it down and picked up Flood by Andrew Vachss. A crime novel, and the first in a series, it’s another critter entirely.

Mr. Vachss wrote Flood in an effort to reach the general public with the message of child abuse. He wrote the book back in the ’80s, when child abuse, and sexual abuse in particular, wasn’t really on the radar like it is now. He had written a nonfiction book about it, but it had no effect outside the profession. Mr. Vachss was a federal investigator of sexually transmitted diseases and also directed a maximum security facility for youthful offenders. He is now a lawyer who represents children and youth exclusively. Since  his nonfiction book was pretty much unknown, he rewrote it as a novel, but had trouble getting it published. No one believed that such things could happen.

In all fairness, I’ve only just started the book, but it’s moved a lot more in 60 pages than Perdido Street Station did in 200, and that says a lot. Especially when you consider it was written long before the current standards in writing.

Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by reading crime novels. I had to branch out, find something else. I was getting tired of all the damn vampire novels out there. I tried switching to straight science fiction, but the market isn’t friendly to new works in the sf genre (unless it’s got vampires in space), so it’s hard to find one. I started out reading Jonathan Kellerman, then discovered L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker (run, don’t walk, out and get that book!). I realized I really like the whole LA noir thing, partly because (and I freely admit it) my daughter lives out there and it made me feel a little closer to her to read about the city. But Los Angeles is a big enough city that it can have so many different stories happen in it that I become interested in the LA noir scene for its own merits.

Anyway, the thing is, crime novels move. Even my abnormally long one keeps moving. There’s some influence from Robert Crais, in that I spend a little more time developing Lyle and those around him than some crime stories do, but that’s all to the good. Maybe that will give it appeal to people who don’t read crime. I’ve left plenty of action in it, though, because I wanted it to move.

It’s not that crime readers are any dumber than fantasy readers (or historical, or whatever), it’s just that crime, being a subgenre of mystery, demands that the story keep moving forward with very little looking back. And if you do look back, you better keep it short, and it better have some relevance to the story at hand, whether it be character development or as some form of foreshadowing. In crime, you usually know who the bad guy is, even if the main character doesn’t, and I guess that’s why I like it a little better than I do mystery. In crime, I get to see inside the mind of the criminal, and, as I’ve said before, that fascinates me.

Well, it’s probably pretty obvious by now that I didn’t know what I was going to say when I started this thing. I was going to include some bits that I’ve learned from editing Pipeline, but I see I’ve reached my limit on word count. My posts are longer than recommended because I’m only able to post once a week. I hope you bear with me on these, even the rambling ones like this one.

My fiction writing really is better organized. I promise.

Later,

Gil

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