On Coke

THE SHORT-TERM EFFECTS of cocaine are focus and euphoria; the medium-term effect is that you hate yourself. The medium-term effect is stronger. The morning after a cocaine binge, you wake inside a vortex of depression, shame, and guilt, dreading the moment when your memory kicks in. Suddenly you see how everything you did and said—not just last night, but for a long period, years even—is pathetic. Worse, everyone but you knew it, was watching as you helplessly humiliated yourself. The urge is to begin texting immediately, to clarify and apologize, but the texts only confirm what they refute—you talk too much. Too late: The texts are sent. A new wave of shame collapses over you. Where was your patience?

In the past decade, America has been awaking from a cocaine binge of incredible proportions. We rub the crust off our eyes and find billions of dollars wasted by millions of people. We also find cocaine’s cultural prestige diminishing. The tech elites eat too healthily; young people would rather order à la carte from the prescription pad. Most troublingly, cocaine—though we preferred not to think of it—left a trail of bloody footprints on the hemisphere. More people have died in Mexico as a result of the drug war than Americans were killed in Vietnam. At one time this seemed immaterial: In the 1980s and ’90s, Forbes magazine included Pablo Escobar on its “Billionaires List,” along with descriptions of his ranch and pet elephants. (And do you think no investment banker ever did lines off those issues?) Now, with cocaine use in the US down by almost half since 2006 and the immigration debate directing attention to conditions in Latin America, we have a drug-war literature presenting cocaine not as a product for individual users but as a node in a ruthless network. These are our morning-after texts.

The Netflix series Narcos (2015) sees its hero, Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura), as a middle-class kid who dreamed of owning a vertically-integrated multinational corporation and totally succeeded. In this world, an appearance in Forbes is an unwelcome inconvenience: “El gobierno nos va a reventar el culo,” an associate says. “The government will pound our asses.” They are upset because the publicity will surely draw unwanted government scrutiny, which might mean taxes, and could alert rival groups to the presence of significant wealth, which might mean kidnappings.

In manner and dress, this Escobar resembles Warren Buffett, with boxy suit jackets and a brushy, inexpensive haircut. He has big, mournful cheeks. His belly presses against the buttons of his casual-Friday shirts. Of course this is all a kind of strategy. Like Buffett residing in Omaha, Escobar exploits his position as a hometown boy to paint over his shrewdness with a rich-uncle image. He’ll beat you to death with a pool cue, but grilled steak and a beer is just fine, maybe a wedge of pineapple for dessert. (Buffett eats practically every meal at a 1940s-style steak house called Gorat’s.) Startled by his mother on the patio, Escobar flicks his cigarette away into the grass.

What preoccupies him is business. By beginning their narrative in the 1970s, a decade before the Medellín cartel achieved omnipotence, the show’s creators allow us to watch a process of corporate consolidation. Escobar leverages one opportunity after another, like a figure in an MBA case study. A skilled chemist escapes Pinochet’s Chile? He’s hired. The police want more bribe money? Fine, but only if they tell him how they learned they were getting fleeced in the first place, so he can plug the leak in his organization. If too much American money is flowing onto the books, push it through shell companies and hide the remainder in hard cash. “On paper,” a DEA agent laments, “Pablo had the most profitable taxi company ever.”

He reaches peak brilliance with his plot to avoid extradition to the US. As the Koch brothers funded a grassroots political movement to stuff the House and Senate with representatives who would lower their taxes, Escobar pays the socialist guerrilla group M19 to invade the Palace of Justice and take the Supreme Court judges hostage, telling them they’re working in the service of “revolution.” The police raid the building, a firefight breaks out, and several judges die. Compared to this sudden judicial crisis, extraditing Escobar no longer seems pressing. He goes back to M19 headquarters and kills everyone and takes his money back.

In the face of such maneuvers, the plodding DEA agents cannot help but bore us. Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) is as standard-issue as cops come, with a father who enlisted when “those fuckers” bombed Pearl Harbor and illusions about American goodness that cry out to be shattered. His new baby, his wife, his temper—we do not care. We like him only insofar as his voice-over tells us Escobar’s story.

The tone of Murphy’s voice-over falls in that macho sweet spot between derision and admiration. “At fifty grand a kilo, that’s $5 billion a year. These guys weren’t fucking around.” Imagine listening to a junior investment banker describe some shrewd and nefarious move by a celebrity capitalist, like Buffett monopolizing all the public electricity in Nevada. Can you believe this motherfucker?

Almost completely absent from Narcos are scenes of people doing cocaine. This is a unifying thread through a lot of the recent cocaine books, TV shows, and movies. The works are all about the wages, not the sin. No one snorts in Sicario (2015), but the bridges in Ciudad Juárez drip with hanged bodies. No one snorts in Don Winslow’s The Cartel (2015), but, in an awful scene, a woman is gang-raped and murdered for owing a small sum of money. In place of the demand, we have the semiautomatic violence of the supply.

Narcos, 2015, still from a TV show on Netflix. Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura).
Narcos, 2015, still from a TV show on Netflix. Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura).

“TO SNORT COCAINE is to make a statement,” Robert Sabbag wrote in Snowblind (1976). “It is like flying to Paris for breakfast.” Snowblind is the nonfiction account of a white drug smuggler named Zachary Swan, who lived in the Hamptons and “in six months had spent more money on cocaine alone than he had paid in state and local income taxes in twenty years.” As a journalist in his late twenties, Sabbag met Swan in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan and recognized him as that irresistible subject, a man of his time. Works like Narcos and The Cartel have an implicit aesthetic enemy in the American cocaine stories of the 1970s. We go back to the ’70s to find the tone these works take pains to avoid.

Swan is an American hustler, a pleasure seeker, an entrepreneur. His spiritual ancestors are the cardsharps and bootleggers and confidence artists of the unincorporated territories, frontiersmen at once guileful and naive who believe deeply in their freedom and take a chance when they see it. Warren Beatty’s character in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), a brothel owner in Washington in 1902, with his beard and brown cigarillos, is a Swan. “I don’t mind deals,” he says. “It’s partners I don’t like.” When the corporation men arrive from the East to buy him out, McCabe tragically overestimates his power to resist them, and when they tire of being trifled with they shoot him and let him bleed to death in the snow. Escobar’s spiritual ancestor is the corporation with the gun.

Before the corporation arrives, it’s all a lot of fun. What occupies the three hundred intoxicating pages of Snowblind is a comic caper involving fake entries in motel registers, guys with names like Rainy Day and Canadian Jack, and ingenious strategies for hiding drugs (within the hollow pipes of a corrugated cardboard box; inside a statue of the Virgin). And parties.

Younger readers will recognize the atmosphere from throwback cocaine movies like Blow (2001) starring Johnny Depp. You know it when you see it. Palm trees, Cessnas, kangaroo wallets, the Rolling Stones singing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” Maybe a little Marshall Tucker Band. (The Narcos sound track features Colombian and Brazilian cumbia and salsa; Sicario uses minimal music.) These are stories of the era in which a coke-dealing white guy could flounce through South America in his turtleneck sweater, dismaying all the squares.

That’s about the worst that happens, dismay. What’s nice about these books is that no one really gets hurt, except, sometimes, people who use too much cocaine. At the end of Snowblind, Swan is undone not by the DEA or a rival but because he’s been partying too hard in the Hamptons. He’s like a college student. Brought down by a noise complaint! When the cops search the house, there’s cocaine in every crevice.

A man who might easily have been one of Swan’s clients is the hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s short story Lady(1972), a good-living addict named Harry Towns. What makes “Lady” so excellent is partly that Towns embodies the cokehead’s particularity when it comes to his coke:

[Towns] would spread some of the drug on a dark surface, a pretzel box as a matter of fact, snort some, rub a little on his gums, and then take a long time getting dressed, returning from time to time to the pretzel box for additional sniffs. . . . He had some special phonograph records that seemed to go with the coke.

Or with his friends at the bar:

After they had taken their snorts, they would each fall back against the wall of the john and let the magic drip through them, saying things like “Oh, brother,” and “This has got to be the best.”

Towns has a great time on coke. He offers it to a prostitute, who eagerly follows him home to get high. He buys an ounce and greedily conceals it from his friends. He is constantly exiting the bathroom sniffling. One of the key lines of “Lady” is: “It was amazing how little he worried about the illegality of what he was doing.” It barely seemed illegal in the first place, just a slightly naughty pleasure.

What undoes Towns is again not the cops—in his case, it’s the death of his mother, which makes him hate himself and think about sobriety. “Anyone who stuck so much as a grain of that white shit up his nose on the actual day of his mother’s funeral had to be some new and as yet undiscovered breed of sonofabitch. The lowest.”

You don’t see many Townses anymore. You don’t find Swans in the wild. If you do, it’s probably a sign that you’re watching something derivative or faintly retrograde. In Flight (2012), for example, Robert Zemeckis cleverly combines two things that scare white people, flying and black men using drugs. Pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) shows up to work hungover and maybe still moderately coked. When the plane nearly crashes because of an equipment failure, Whitaker saves the day by landing it in a field. But six passengers die. The film boils down to a two-hour debate over whether Whitaker should spend his life in prison for his alcohol and cocaine abuse. (Spoiler: He knows he should.) Though we’re in the present, Whitaker’s drug dealer, played by John Goodman, is imported from the Snowblind era, wearing a rainbow hemp knapsack and blasting “Sympathy for the Devil” on his headphones. What a rad dude! Unlike that irresponsible pilot.

TODAY, DRUG CARTELS are the ideal American protagonist, part outlaw and part corporation, fascinating us more the more amoral they become. Can you write an anti-drug-war drug-war book? Between their attraction to the trade as a narrative proposition and their desire to condemn the individual user—sometimes assumed to be the reader—writers can get caught in a contradictory position, preaching drug abstinence while they inadvertently seduce us. This occasionally has comic results.

For instance, there is an unwritten rule that the experience of reading a drug-war book must be compared, in the blurbs, to the experience of using drugs. (I did this unthinkingly above, when I called Snowblind “intoxicating.”) The rule holds true no matter how antiviolence the book is. With The Cartel, we have a writer so explicit in his political outlook that he dedicates his book not to his wife or child but to the memory of all the journalists who died in Mexico during the period covered in the novel. This dedication occupies two pages. “It’s got the jazz dog feel of a shot of pure meth!” James Ellroy writes on the jacket.

A version of this contradiction plays out in cocaine nonfiction, too, where it is a convention to follow a passage about the horror of the drug war by directly addressing a flippant cocaine user. In Cocaine, an Unauthorized Biography (2001), the British writer Dominic Streatfeild describes incipient fighting between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas, one of whom, a man named Trinidad, was a source for Streatfeild’s book:

By the time you read this book, the fighting will have begun. How many people will have died by then? Perhaps Trinidad will be one of them?

Isn’t cocaine a fun drug?

I admit I find the tone a little off-putting.

Yet it’s nothing compared to the tonal issues that afflict Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, author of the shrillest and most self-sabotaging book on cocaine (perhaps on any subject) written in the past several years. After publishing his 2006 book, Gomorrah, about the Neapolitan Mafia, which placed him in severe danger of retaliation, Saviano turned his attention to cocaine, having become convinced that it constituted the single essential object for understanding the entire planet. “Look at cocaine,” he writes, “and all you see is powder. Look through cocaine and you see the world.”

As Streatfeild contrasted the deaths of FARC guerrillas with an American’s oblivious snorting, Saviano follows a long chapter about the gruesome torture and murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena with an interlude that contains the following:

Cocaine is the body’s fuel. It is life cubed. That is, before it consumes you, destroys you. The extra life that coke seems to have given you, you’ll pay for later, at loan-shark interest rates. But later doesn’t count. It’s all here and now.

This gives a good idea of ZeroZeroZero (2013), a book so intent on convincing us of cocaine’s unfathomable evil that it winds up prostrate before its own subject, like an exorcist who insists on the presence of the devil until the devil finally appears.

Along with his reported chapters, Saviano offers little poetic interludes, meditations on the nature and appeal of cocaine. Here’s a sample from “Coke #4”:

Like something sacred, whose name cannot be uttered,
like a secret lover you hold close in your thoughts. . . .
She’ll make you joyful and desperate, she’s the one you want
at all times, all places, all ways.
In America, you can call her 24/7,
like your neighborhood drugstore. . . .
She’s pure, purely herself.
She consumes her names like she consumes her lovers.
So this list is nothing but a taste,
so call her any way you want,
No matter what name you choose, she’ll come when you call.

If you ever hear anyone speak like this in real life, get their dealer’s number.

Saviano is an addict, except his addiction is to writing about cocaine. His reportage takes on a misty, operatic quality. “You’re someone who kills your friends. If you don’t have any ties, what is there to fear?” I don’t know, because I don’t even understand what that sentence means. Further complicating matters, when Saviano does deliver a hard fact, he declines to trace it back to a source. We have no idea where we are vis-à-vis reality. Does the title derive from the number of footnotes in the book? But Saviano’s failures have poignancy to them, because they arise from the sincerity of their author. He believes that if only we understood what was happening, we’d stop doing cocaine.

Look at ZeroZeroZero and all you see is a not-great book. Look through ZeroZeroZero and you see a larger truth about cocaine’s hold on our imaginations. Consider for another second the tone of Saviano’s poems. They’re overwritten and a little silly. (Also, how many Americans live near twenty-four-hour drugstores?) But their main quality is that they produce in the reader a feeling of vicarious embarrassment. We feel for Saviano, because there’s a mismatch between what he’s writing about and how he writes it. Cocaine isn’t exciting enough anymore to merit all the rhapsodizing, but the author doesn’t seem to know it.

It was indeed formerly the case that the cocaine business involved a lively cast of characters, from the smugglers on down. Cocaine shone the way Saviano still believes it does. But that strikes me as having changed. The cartels are machines for making money; the users, their numbers sharply declining, do cocaine to fight boredom. They don’t expect to have fun.

The demographic that once made coke aspirational is now the same demographic most likely to find it repellent. Wall Street and Silicon Valley fetishize efficiency and productivity. Cocaine, though it can be called many things, will never be called “efficient.” The cost/benefit analysis damns it. Twenty minutes of energy followed by a depression that feels worse than when you started and from which you must purchase more overpriced cocaine to escape? Please. Adderall, for one, costs a fraction, is legal, and lasts twelve hours. There may still be appeal in all the rigmarole, the cutting and rolling bills and so on, but that will seem anachronistic to the hypothetical modern person who swallows a pill and slips into the back of an Uber on her way to work or to an evening out.

Saviano says that you can look through cocaine and see the world. It’s a claim you can make about almost any commodity (salt, cotton), and many nonfiction writers have. But judging by our continued appetite for books and films about cocaine, we seem to know intuitively that this particular trade is different. I think cocaine stories, in their insistence on showing violence as a global system, acknowledge something that we suspect is true but is concealed. Namely, that it’s becoming impossible to get through the day without a little bloody residue sticking to our fingers—that behind every iPhone may be a Foxconn-factory suicide. Schopenhauer wrote that life swings between two poles, pain and boredom. The question cocaine poses is how much of the pain of others is the alleviation of our boredom worth.

Jesse Barron is a writer living in New York.