Reviewed by L.D.Y.
Hardcover (available in trade), 341 pages, 2002
Reason for Reading: I found a hardcover copy up for offer in the bargain section of an on-line site, and remembered how popular it had been when I worked at a bookstore, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was about. Better late than never, right?
Synopsis: Loaded (renamed Smokescreen in later editions) is the story of Allen Long, a marijuana smuggler that operated mainly between Columbia and the United States in the 1970s. He starts off making a documentary about smuggling, but quickly realizes that the things he wants the most – wild adventures, the best drugs, and money in such quantities that it’s weighed, not counted – are much easier to get if he becomes a smuggler. But what becomes of a man that’s always on the prowl for more of everything?
Why you should read this book: Loaded is all about the fast-paced suspense – the book opens with Long’s plane on the verge of crashing, and doesn’t slow down much from there. Along with the airplanes, there are weapons, broken promises, rising riches, cops, briberies, so much criminal activity and so many drugs it’s hard to fathom, and, well, even a little bit of genius. It’s hard not to be at least a little impressed by Long’s audacity and his business skills. Sabbag’s writing style gives everything a sense of immediacy – you start to feel like you’re the one soaring through the sky in a barely-legal plane that’s filled with fully-illegal substances, or unloading bales of drugs as fast as humanly possible before the cops show up. It might have made a helluva movie, actually, had the book not come out around the same time as the Johnny Depp movie, Blow, which has a similar feel but focuses on cocaine smugglers instead of weed smugglers. To clarify: Do I think you should become a marijuana smuggler? No. Do I think you should read this book if you want something that will have your adrenaline flowing way past bed-time? Yes.
Why you should avoid this book: Generally speaking, Sabbag’s frantic, high-energy writing style perfectly suits the subject matter, but at times he can go completely overboard with his descriptions. There’s ‘fresh outlooks’ and then there’s ‘off-the-wall goofiness,’ and sometimes he crosses the line. Writing style aside, no doubt the subject matter is what will concern most people. I really didn’t get a sense of glamorization, but there wasn’t much room in the writing style for moralization, either. Sabbag is fairly neutral, so you can judge things for yourself based on the characters’ actions (and ultimately, their fates).
Allen Long descended from a short line of American aviators. He in effect was the first. One morning off the coast of South America, as his DC-3, with the break of dawn, violated Columbian airspace, there rose before him, as palpable as the peaks of the Sierra Nevada hovering on the horizon, the probability that he might be the last.
‘You gotta stay here, and you gotta stay straight,’ Long would tell people who worked for him. ‘Don’t go out ad get wasted. Don’t go anywhere. I don’t want you to move.’
And then, in the same way that Pomeroy had gone out to kill some time at the blackjack tables, Long would go out to play – in his case probably pick up a woman and all the drugs he could find – to return just before the load was due, and tell everybody, ‘Okay, let’s go.’
In parts of Columbia, those parts where life is cheap, acquaintance with danger comes with the turf; acceptance of violence and violent death is neither masculine nor particularly Latin. On the Guajira, where life is really cheap, risking your life, as often as not, is part of earning your daily bread: eking out a hardscrabble existence, taking bare subsistence from the land, straining literally to put bread on the table.
On the Guajira, in the time of the Americans, ‘courage and aggressiveness’ were what it took to get by. Machismo, if you want to call it that, was born out of desperation, the way of the desperado in all its nuances of meaning. These were the badlands. And carrying a gun, when it actually came to doing so – illegal everywhere in Columbia – came with understandable indifference to everything but the money it costs to buy it.
Also recommended: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson; Watch Your Back! by Donald E Westlake.
Also by this author: Snowblind; Too Tough to Die.
Author’s website: robertsabbag.com
Fun tidbit: The HBO movie Witness Protection was based on an article by Sabbag, ‘The Invisible Family.’ The movie was nominated for two Golden Globe awards.
Would I read more by this author? If I was in the mood for another fast-paced, high-adventure type of book, probably.
Â© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007