Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Loaded (aka Smokescreen)

Loaded, by Robert Sabbag
No month stated, 2002  Little, Brown and Company

In 1976 Robert Sabbag published Snowblind, an account of a coke smuggler which was greeted with much critical acclaim; Rolling Stone excerpted it extensively, and no less than Hunter Thompson showered it with praise. Sabbag didn’t focus on “drug books” for a while after that; I think I read an interview with him where he stated he didn’t want to to only be known for drug-related nonfiction, so focused on other material. But in 2002 he returned to the field with Loaded (retitled Smokescreen for its trade paperback reprint), which concerns the much more interesting (to me, at least) subject of ‘70s marijuana smuggling. 

In the afterword to Loaded, Sabbag states that he almost wrote this book back in the ‘70s, and that it would’ve been an of-the-moment documentation of the era. It’s kind of unfortunate he didn’t. I’ve searched, and it doesn’t seem like there were many books published on dope smuggling in the ‘70s; you’d figure Rolling Stone would’ve done a story on it, maybe with Thompson himself or some other roving reporter tagging along with some dope smugglers on their DC-3 as they winged their way across the border from Mexico with a huge stash of Colombian Gold. I’ve searched my Rolling Stone: Cover To Cover CD-ROM and have been unable to find any such story…the closest thing would be the occasional “dope pages” updates from Charles Perry which ran in the early to mid ‘70s, but the majority of those were just news bulletins on happenings in the world of dopesmoking. 

My assumption is the smugglers were so under the radar they didn’t even want any publicity in Rolling Stone. It seems that the only place you can find stories about them from the era itself would be in the fiction of the day, a la Night Crossing and The Mexican Connection. (And let’s not forget a modern attempt at this subgenre, High Fliers.) Well anyway, all of which is to say that Sabbag could’ve dominated the field if he’d done this book back then, because as it is, it doesn’t seem like Loaded reached anywhere near the success (critical or commercial) that Snowblind did, implying that readers in the ‘70s were much more interested in drug-related nonfiction. There’s hardly much about this book online, either; part of it could be confusion over its retitling, which also implies it didn’t do as well as expected, thus a new title was devised for the paperback edition, to increase awareness or somesuch. 

Given that Loaded was written decades after the events described, there is an air of detachment to the narrative, which unfortunately robs it of impact. Also there is an air of a time lost. But on the other hand, at least this method allows the tale to fully be told, given that our protagonist escapes custody until the early ‘90s. Allen Long is that protagonist, a man who starts out in 1971 as a struggling documentary director, but who by the end of the ‘70s has become a kingpin of the drug trade. In a way he represents the era itself, starting off as your typical young hippie who is into the whole peace and love movement, but ending the decade as a guy who does deals with former CIA agents who carry along grenade launchers in case their coke deals go bad. 

Greil Marcus also gave Snowblind a laudatory review in Rolling Stone, in particular marvelling over the hardboiled style Sabbag employed in it. Sabbag doesn’t seem to go as much for the same vibe here, instead giving the narrative more of a snarky, or at least somewhat humorous tone. I guess the difference is that Zachary Swann, “hero” of the earlier book, was a coke dealer, employing all the heavy vibes of that trade, whereas Long is at times more in the Cheech & Chong spectrum of things. This is just the difference between the two drugs, personified; Long, like so many others who became smugglers (as Sabbag informs us), only got into the business because he enjoyed smoking dope, not because he wanted to get rich. Indeed, the wealth was basically a bonus. But whereas the world of cocaine dealing is a dangerous one, wraught with murder and burns and blackmail (as documented in the awesome period study Cocaine), the marijuana trade – at least in the ‘70s – was one of a closeknit group of peace-lovers who just wanted to get stoned on good grass. 

The novel opens with a taut, gripping sequence; it’s Fall of 1976 and Long’s just arrived in Colombia on his DC-3, along with pilot Frank Hatfield and Long’s partner Will McBride. Long, against Hatfield’s suggestions, has loaded the plane with marijuana despite the rough conditions; Hatfield is adamant the plane won’t make it. As usual it makes sense to listen to the pilot, as the plane does indeed crash – a grueling sequence that goes on for several pages. There’s about as much “flying material” in Loaded as in Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve (another of those dope smuggler novels published in the actual era), and I guess other readers would enjoy it more than I did. But this opening sequence definitely gets your interest. 

But Sabbag leaves us here with the protagonist’s fate in question and then cuts back to 1971, so we can see the rocky path which led Allen Long to this predicament. In ’71 he’s a young wanna-be documentary director, looking to ride on the success of the countercultural milieu with a documentary about smuggling – showing it actually happen, the people behind it, etc. Long has a private investor and has what he thinks is a great subject: El Coyote, a notorious big time smuggler who is given to boastful stories of his smuggling escapades and whatnot. Long puts together a crew and goes with Coyote down to Mexico to film the deal…only for Coyote to be informed by his usual contacts that it’s not the right season for marijuana, that it will be another couple months until product is available. Everyone’s stunned that El Coyote entirely forgot about this, and the big man heads back to New York in shame, never to be heard from again. 

Long stays in Mexico and meets up with various fringe-world drug characters. Sabbag throughout captures the shaggy freak vibe of the era, often documenting the fashions and hairstyles of the various characters. Long quickly bumps into another smuggler, Lee Carlyle, and figures this guy can be the new protagonist of his doc, particularly given Carlyle’s grandiose flourishes, like when he shows his last penny and proclaims he’s going to turn it into a million dollars. Which he does, in one of the more entertaining stories in the book, even if it happens mostly off-page; Carlyle goes through the novel means of smuggling marijuana via Greyhound Bus, and when Long meets up with him later in the US, Carlyle’s a wealthy man with a fancy sportscar, an actress girlfriend, and etc. Then his latest smuggling caper falls apart and Carlyle’s penniless again, and Long is once again back where he started so far as his documentary goes. 

When his independent backer says he’s finished, Long decides to become a smuggler himself, so as to raise the necessary $100k to finish the documentary. Curiously, his original plan will soon be forgotten as Long enters the big leagues of marijuana smuggling and just starts living the life. This takes us into the meat of the tale, with his meeting of McBride and Hatfield, as well as other associates in the drug biz. Some of these characters are more interesting than our protagonists, like JD Reed, a “practicing noble savage and sagebrush philosopher,” who starts each day with a full joint soaked in hash oil. A musclebound giant whose father is a contract killer for the mob, Reed is given to philosophical meanderings as he goes about his smuggling ventures, and he has a sort of “made for a movie” partnership with a science professor named Abe. The material with these two in their Cesna, plotting new smuggling ventures over fatt joints, is entertaining enough for a novel itself. But these are supporting characters, and not seen enough. 

The only time we get this sort of madcap fun from Long and crew is on their first big venture; they fly down to Colombia to handle a shipment to make up for one that was lost, courtesy a bust. On the several-hour flight back up into the US, they inhale copious amounts of marijuana and coke, drinking beer on the side. In various states of inebriation Long takes control of the plane, gliding along without a care in the world. It’s a surreal sequence, very entertaining, particularly the “pullover” that happens in mid-air when a pair of US fighter jets accost them – the pilots having to slow way down to keep abreast with the DC-3. Turns out Long and crew are over US military airspace. They respond with meek shrugs when the fighter pilots call for them over the radio – Long and crew pretending that their radio is broken. “Just some more drug smugglers,” they hear one of the pilots say over the radio. “None of our busines.” And the fighter jets just leave! 

But otherwise Loaded is comprised of straight-eyed recountings of Long’s various smuggling ventures, with little of this zaniness. More of the novel has to do with the machismo of the Colombians, who particularly value masculinity when it is combined with recklessness. This is most displayed when Long bluffs his way out of a bad situation by telling his Colombian partners that he wants them to give him a shipment of marijuana on credit, so he can sell it to pay them back for both it and the shipment he lost. When the Colombians ask how he will carry off such a plan, Long grabs his crotch and announces, “I have only my airplane and my balls.” This delights the Colombians so much they shoot off their guns in the air. But it really is a man’s world in Loaded, the only females a series of romances Long has along the way, from the daughter of a prominent Colombian smuggler to a swingin’ American chick whose pubic hair is trimmed into the shape of a heart – I really wanted to know more about her in particular, but the sleaze quotient is nil, more’s the pity. Again, the book is the product of the ‘00s, not the ‘70s. 

When we pick back up on the opening 1976 sequence, we find that Long has crashed into the sea, though everyone has survived. They are saved by the “deus ex machina” appearance of Tony, a Miami-based drug dealer who arrives on the scene on his boat. He’s not only familiar with Long, he’s more than happy to help him save his shipment. This new partnership leads into the latter half of the book, with coke making a bigger presence on the scene – Long smuggles some of it, but just can’t get into it, finding something evil about the drug. He’s very much a marijuana guy, and finds himself more and more out of touch with the times as coke becomes the drug of the late ‘70s, with all the violence and high-stakes dealing. Around 1978 Long gets a publicity job for Nemperor Records, but quits and gets back into dealing. The book ends rather anticlimactically with Long’s plan for one last big job – one that goes south, losing him 3.5 million dollars. 

At this point Tony, who has had CIA training, has moved on to greener pastures, leaving another CIA trainee, Jimmy, to handle his coke business. Jimmy comes off like the prototype of all the coke dealers you’d see on Miami Vice, down to convincing his partners to do jobs by holding guns to their heads. With Tony’s dealing in guns and grenades on the side, Long has had enough and says goodbye to the business. A brief epilogue gives us a rundown of the fates of the various characters, the majority of whom were eventually caught and did time. Long managed to evade capture the longest, not arrested until 1991. But given that so much time had passed since his smuggling, there was no interest in throwing the book at him, thus he only did 30 months in prison, the last several months in minimum security. 

Sabbag does carry the story along with panache and a definite skill, but at the same time something seems to be missing from Loaded. Maybe it’s because the reality of dope smuggling in the ‘70s wasn’t as fantastical as you would imagine…a lot of it comes off as boring, just a lot of planning and flying back and forth from South America. I get the impression that Snowblind will have all the elements I found lacking in Loaded, so I’m sure I’ll give it a read someday.

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