No month stated, 1981 Delacorte Press
I first discovered this obscure novel, only ever published in this hardcover edition, some years ago while searching the Kirkus review archives for novels about marijuana smuggling in the ‘70s. Really! While the review was negative (as is typical for vintage Kirkus reviews), I still wanted to read the book, so ordered a copy through Interlibary Loan. I think this was about three or so years ago.
When I got the book from the lending library – and curiously the book had never even seemed to have been opened before, let alone read – I flipped through the pages, and rather than seeing the pot-fueled madcap hippie dope smuggling fun escapist yarn I wanted, it was a barrage of Spanish language, Mexican locales, and hardly anything about marijuana smuggling at all. I returned the book to my library, which returned it on to the lending library, still unread. But I recently went on another of my random “I’ve gotta read a book about marijuana smuggling in the ‘70s” tangents, and found myself looking at that Kirkus review of The Last Scam again. And this time, I swore to all the trash gods, I’d read the damn thing.
Once again the book I received seemed to be in perfect, pristine, never-touched shape, save for the fact that the dustcover had been removed. And I cracked open the uncracked spine and tried to read this 364-page monstrosity again. And realized within the first few pages why it sunk without a trace, never garnering a paperback edition – not even from a low-budget imprint like Manor Books! So again, there’s absolutely none of the ‘70s dope-smuggling fun escapism I wanted here in The Last Scam, not even anything approaching similarly-themed contemporary novels like Night Crossing and The Mexican Connection. Even the deranged and reactionary Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve was better than this slow-moving chore of a novel.
So here’s the thing. That Kirkus review, while negative, actually makes The Last Scam sound better than it is. Those colorfully-named dope-world characters mentioned in the review turn out to be paper-thin ciphers who have no backgrounds or interests or personality – I mean, we don’t even learn why the main character, a veteran dope smuggler named Henry Amazon, even got into the drug game to begin with! And hell, other than an occasional puff of “motta” (again, Spanish words proliferate in the text), Amazon is straight-edged the entire novel, keyed up on the planning of the titular last scam.
None of the cool period drug world stuff I wanted was here, ie stuff like in Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader. It’s all so bland and boring, with no mentions of the world outside of desolate patches of Mexico where Henry Amazon plans his final marijuana run. And yeah, “Henry Amazon.” Author David Harris has this annoying quirk of repeating the dude’s full name constantly in the narrative: “Henry Amazon,” over and over. But that’s not bad enough. The other names are just confusing. Like Ramon Ramon, Amazon’s former partner…but who turns out to really be a “gringo” like Amazon. I mean despite having a novel in which 90% of the characters are Mexican, author Harris even gives one of the few white protagonists a Spanish name!
But then, The Last Scam is so “Mexico First” that there are parts where Henry Amazon, the friggin’ protagonist of the yarn, is referred to as a “gringo” in the narrative! This gets confusing because Harris will willy-nilly refer to Amazon or Ramon Ramon as “the gringo.” But then again, Harris is really bad with POV-hopping, by which I mean one paragraph we’re in one character’s perspective and in the next we’re in another character’s perspective, and there’s no white space or anything to warn us of the perspective change. One of my true pet peeves in books. It just generates confusion, confusion which is only compounded by all the similarly-named, cipher-like characters.
I also suspect Harris was influenced by Joe Eszterhas’s series of Nark! articles for Rolling Stone in the early ‘70s, which were eventually anthologized as a hardcover by Rolling Stone’s publishing venture Straight Arrow Press. As in Nark!, the government agents are an unhinged, sadistic lot, particularly the Mexican ones. This brings me to a more interesting parallel. There are a lot of similarities between The Last Scam and the work in general of William Crawford. The overall grimy, dirty vibe (everyone seems to be dirty and greasy), the sadistic cops, the penchant for torture, the sudden eruptions of brutal violence, even the weird quirk of characters shitting themselves. Even some of the phraseology is similar: “drop his mud” is used here, as in someone giving away info, and the only other place I’ve seen that phrase is in Crawford’s novels.
Now, I’m not saying David Harris was William Crawford, though I guess it’s possible (though I think Crawford died around 1979 or so). I’m just saying it’s an interesting similarity. Because William Crawford would’ve written a more entertaining novel, I’m sure. I mean comparatively speaking. The problem with The Last Scam is the unlikable, ciper-like characters who plod through its boring events with absolutely no escapist thrills for the reader to enjoy. It’s a humorless beat-down of a novel, the complete antithesis of the fun sort of dope smuggling yarn I wanted…like the more recent High Fliers. It’s also curiously devoid of any background detail on drug smuggling; as mentioned, why Henry Amazon or Ramon Ramon even became smugglers is not mentioned. And about the most we learn about either of them is that they were in ‘Nam together. That’s it.
The novel opens with a prologue set in 1977, in which Henry Amazon and Ramon Ramon run into each other in some dingy Mexican restaurant – almost the entirety of the novel takes place in such locales. We quickly learn some background on the two; Amazon and Ramon were partners until 1971, when they had an acrimonious splitting of ways. This had something to do with a screw-up a third partner, The Patchouli Kid, happened to make on a scam (ie a drug run). Speaking of whom, here in this prologue Ramon casually mentions that the Patchouli Kid has been killed by the sadistic Federales, ie the Mexican cops. Amazon storms off, and I guess all this is Harris’s foreshadowing of how dangerous “scams” are becoming.
We then pick back up in 1978…and we’re again in Mexico. And Amazon is planning another scam. And he’ll again run into Ramon Ramon. Here though we learn there was more to their falling out: years ago Amazon’s girlfriend Wanda Lamar (also an assumed name), ran off with Ramon. But even this is just muddled backstory; Wanda is mentioned infrequently, in particular that she eventually “went native,” living with the Indians in the Mexican jungle to the point that she came off like one. Or at least Amazon took her for one, last time he saw her. But the point is, Wanda even eventually left Ramon, however she turns up in the last quarter of The Last Scam to complicate the lives of both men. However, Amazon no longer even “feels anything” for Wanda, so any potential for some drama or fireworks is also neutered. As I say, David Harris does a thorough job of consistently ruining the potential of his novel.
Oh and meanwhile there are the sadistic Feds, both American and Mexican. In charge of the latter is Cruz, who tortures with relish in some of the book’s more shocking scenes; there’s a bit in the middle where he tortures a captured American drug-runner with a flame-heated knife. In charge of the Americans is Purdy Fletcher, aka Purd, a fat moron of reactionary values who seems to have stumbled out of Eszterhas’s book Nark. Under Purd’s command is new Federal agent “Hog” Wissel, which of course made me think of Hog Wiley. These guys work with Cruz, though Cruz and Purd have an antagonistic relationship; on both sides, the cops are presented as bumbling psychopaths who don’t care so much about drugs as they do capturing, torturing, and killing their prey.
But that’s about it so far as an underground vibe goes to The Last Scam. I mean there isn’t even any tie-in to when all this really started a decade before, with all the hippies running drugs across the border and whatnot…you know, the sort of stuff in Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader. No mention of the passing of time, or of the drug culture in general…nothing. It’s just a bland, dispirited, boring novel, which is mind-boggling when you consider it. About the only mention we get of any of that stuff is that minor character Beef Stew (another assumed name) was once a member of the Brotherhood of Love…a California-based LSD cult that was featured in, you guessed it, Nark.
Otherwise David Harris’s focus is on the business end of the scam, the planning and the waiting. Oh, the waiting. There are so many parts in this nigh-on 400-page novel where Henry Amazon or Ramon Ramon just sit in a dingy Mexican motel room…and wait. Wait for their connection to drum up some money, wait for someone to call them on the meet. It’s just endless wheel-spinning. Midway through things pick up when Ramon’s scam with Beef Stew goes haywire, in violent fashion. Another thing: Ramon Ramon is himself close to being the novel’s antagonist, given how he’s supposedly blown away a narc and is now on the FBI’s most wanted list. But even this doesn’t pan out into anything memorable; Ramon manages to elude Purd and the others several times, but when this subplot reaches its conclusion it is very anticlimactic.
Harris is also guilty of a weird, half-assed omniscient tone. Throughout the novel we’ll be told stuff like, “Amazon didn’t know it, but the car he’d just passed happened to belong to…” That sort of thing, where we are constantly being told things the character doesn’t know, or couldn’t know. But otherwise there’s no omniscient narrator voice to tie all this together. In other words, it’s half-assed, and of a piece with the POV-hopping. What I’m trying to say is, I really didn’t enjoy The Last Scam, and there’s no mystery why it didn’t find a greater readership. I think David Harris had a fine idea for a novel (he even dedicates it to the supposed “real” Henry Amazon, wishing him to stay safe), but he ruined it with such a humorless, boring approach. Decades later Robert Sabbag would take a similar plot and do much better with it, in Loaded.