In his new book A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior (Harcourt, 2005) Charles Bowden once again confronts us with the invisible world of the drug wars where brutal crimes occur with regularity; where betrayal and deception are the only two things that one can count on; and where alcohol and drugs are the next best things to a cure. He first showed us this world in Down by the River (Simon & Schuster 2002), a story about the murder of a brilliant, young DEA agent, the negligence of the American government, and how both impacted the agent’s family. This time he chronicles a career-making drug deal/bust for pure Columbian heroin orchestrated by Joey O’Shay, a DEA agent who has been working deep-cover for over twenty years. He’s made hundreds of busts without being detected by his targets; however, his purpose as an agent and that of America’s war on drugs has grown more obscure with each bust. O’Shay wants to retire from his job. He wants to walk away from what has become too easy for him—getting close to his enemies and then destroying them. But through the work, “he feels not simply alive, but explained.”
The same is true for the array of characters that assist O’Shay in making his most high-profile bust. Interestingly Bowden focuses primarily on the women who are as entrenched in O’Shay’s life as he is in the war. While Bowden does not explore the role of gender in the drug business, his choice to closely follow three particular women makes us wonder if they are the true power players. The first of the three we meet is Bobbie. She has assisted O’Shay for nearly as long as he’s been undercover. Bobbie owns a hotel that O’Shay uses to accommodate and meet with the suppliers and distributors he flies into the unnamed city from which he works. Bobbie is addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and the drug-dealing lifestyle; her life is nothing without these three things. Then there is Cosima, an ex-convict who is obsessed with the 9/11 tragedy and spends most of the book painting grim, abstract interpretations of the New York City attacks. Cosima is also addicted to the lifestyle; however, what attracts her is the impossibility of deriving pleasure from it and the eminent, seemingly sanctified destruction it wrecks on those involved. Finally, there is Gloria, a mother of two whose reach extends into the upper echelons of the drug business. She falls in love with O’Shay, but it is unclear whether that love goes unrequited.
Although the names in the book have been changed and the city from which much of the action originates goes unnamed, Bowden assures us that the story is true—“The deals occurred. As did the killings, beatings, shootings, tortures, betrayals, suicide, and love.” He emphasizes its reality by interweaving excerpts from O’Shay’s journal with his distinct journalistic style. However, verifying the veracity of these events does little to soften their blow. And there is little reason for Bowden to do so. The truth of Joey O’Shay’s life and work should hit us hard enough to make us look beyond the vanishing point and at the underworld seething just beneath the surface of America’s seemingly wholesome fabric. He was born and raised beyond this point in a poor neighborhood where vice and violence were necessary for survival. O’Shay and his brother raised themselves by working odd jobs and running poker games out of the house. In his early twenties, he joined the police force because he needed a steady job and benefits to support his new family. His youth made him a genius in undercover work. As he rose to the upper echelons of law enforcement, he developed the ability to kill with the cold detachment of a sociopath. Unfortunately, it did not make killing or seeing people killed easier for him. It merely left him wondering why, in twenty years and a multitude of betrayals, he has not been killed.
But, at the end of the book we discover that this is not a story about cops. It is not even a story about the drug wars. Rather it is a psychological profile of people who, in all actuality, are just like the rest us. They have families, enjoy classic movies, weekends in the mountains… but they have seen too much. Some have lifted a corner of the American fabric and seen beyond the vanishing point. Others call it home. It is a lonely place few of us choose to go to because we can see the desperation of those whose lives begin and end there. And what are they desperate for? They are desperate for something pure, beautiful, and perhaps sublime. They are desperate for something that holds the promise of life. Above all, they are desperate to unsee and unknow the things their lifestyle has confronted them with. Yet, as Bowden reminds us throughout the story, this is impossible. In fact, he dares us to try to close the book and pretend as though what we’ve read is nothing more than a well-crafted tale. But once one has been exposed to physical, emotional, and psychological violence, once one has understood that these things are more the rule than he can admit, he “never [is] allowed the lie of saying I didn’t know.”