Chemical Cowboys: The DEA’s Secret Mission to Hunt Down a Notorious Ecstasy Kingpin
Author: Lisa Sweetingham
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Rating: + half
Reviewed by: Gary Mack
Two chapters into Lisa Sweetingham’s narrative, Chemical Cowboys, it’s clear that the former Columbia School of Journalism student’s strength is in how to sniff out sources, chronicle historical fact, and disseminate information important to the case. Her work is exhaustingly detailed, well documented, and credible in every sense from the perspective of an investigative reporter.
Where Ms. Sweetingham’s work falls flat is in her ability to tell a compelling story through a minimum of characters. Her sweeping approach on the DEA’s struggle with “kiddie dope”, the Ecstasy Wars of the 90’s, skips around haphazardly, introducing so many agents, drug lords, Israeli mobsters, mules and grifters, she clogs up your information pipe line to where you are overwhelmed and disinterested. You sort of just want to stop and clean up the mess.
Non-fiction must move along like fiction. Stories are usually easy to follow when you know whom the good guys and bad guys are. In this instance, it’s clear the agents Germanowski and Gagne are the two protagonists we want to follow. Certainly we understand there were other players during their tenure but it’s the G-boys we want more of, want to know, want to be with in their daily struggles against the antagonistic, Oded “The Fat Man” Tuito.
The basis of the story lies amongst these 3 players yet we drift in and out of their lives as we struggle mightily through the introductions and background of one character after another. In many cases, even with the most minor of players, you can bet on two to three paragraphs of family history, criminal history, and who’s the subjects favorite teacher from his or her eighth grade Junior High School class. Though I hyperbolize, it’s all too much.
In the expose’s most grotesque moment, Sweetingham finds it necessary, even though it’s complete conjecture, to let us know that one of the Club Kids, the heroin induced Michael Alig, may have swallowed the testicles of his murdered roommate. This revelation hardly adds to the story and is only mentioned so the author can be provocative.
It’s a real shame. Sweetingham had a great opportunity to open our eyes on a part of the drug war still unknown to us. If she would have fashioned Germanowski and Gagne to their undercover brethren, “Popeye” Doyle and “Cloudy” Russo, she would have created a more stirring and memorable account. In my opinion, Chemical Cowboys is a disappointment. The pace is swift, yet the over stuffed content drugs you up as a reader with information and forces you to struggle turning the pages. Three-quarters in you are fighting the story and you’re tempted to jump chapters just so you can get it all over with.
Next time around, let’s hope the talented and well schooled Lisa Sweetingham decides to do much more – with much, much less.