Saint Petersburg, FL, United States
If you've seen Billy Corben's underground success documentary, Cocaine Cowboys, you're familiar with Jon Roberts, the sharp-witted businessman and cocaine smuggler. While watching Corben's documentary, you get the sense that Roberts wasn't the violent type, but rather a logistics man and true businessman amongst Columbian cartel maniacs. Perhaps nothing could be further from the truth.
Jon Roberts, by his own admission, is pure evil. His frank discussion of murders and the violence associated with the importation and marketing of billion dollars worth of cocaine for the Medellin cartel comes across like Satan dictating his memoirs. Jon's account of growing up in the New York mafia, his early family life and his adolescence spent hustling dealers on the streets give you insight into the path he chose.
While there are few that would admit to following in his footsteps, the tell-all account proves fascinating, particularly when subsidized by commentary from the stories central characters, including Jon's sister, Judy, Jon's smuggling partner, Mickey Munday, and numerous childhood friends, lawyers and crime partners. The depth of political and judicial corruption is astounding and shows the true underpinnings of power, narcotics and money in the modern era.
Jon's story is shocking, gripping-- and at times, particularly in the Vietnam area, may be hard to sit through. I listened to the majority of this book while on a road trip, occasionally I found myself fast forwarding as Jon's account of murdering and torturing VC soldiers proved too horrifying for those riding with me. That aside, it sheds further light on the development of the Jon Roberts of the early-80s.
Evan Wright does a great job of attempting to independently confirm the majority of Roberts' unbelievable stories-- either through news clippings of the day, or directly from those associated with a specific narrative. In many cases the author is able to corroborate Roberts' story, in cases where a participant has a contrasting recollection of the events, the author is careful to provide that individual the opportunity to share their side of the story.
All in all, if you were a fan of Cocaine Cowboys, you might find yourself wading through 75% of the story before you come across familiar territory and characters. Nonetheless, the first three-quarters of the book is just as interesting and would make a fantastic film.
If you're a fan of Mark Bowden, this is yet another great title. Most are familiar with either his work "Black Hawk Down" or the film adaptation by the same name. Fewer are aware of what I consider to be his best work to date, "Killing Pablo", detailing the life, career and U.S.-supported covert assassination campaign against him.
While the Iranian hostage crisis is far less romantic a subject matter than cocaine cartel kingpins or a team of elite American servicemen caught behind enemy lines, Bowden's thoroughness gives you insight into the minds of the captive embassy staff, woven in with the interviews outlining the political motivations of the hostage takers.
Much like the real event, Bowden's narrative is quick and action-oriented at times. For example, when one hostage escapes and hides in a barrel of freezing water with guards patrolling so close he could touch them. Other times, it lends itself to the monotonous routines of a long-term captive, detailing the mundane things people do to help keep their sanity.
Bowden's voice remains consistent with his other works and "Guests of the Ayatollah" maintains his signature humorous retelling of events, often with Bowden's tendency to speak casually and without regard for political correctness.
Ultimately, it's not the most action packed of novels when compared to other Bowden works of the same species, titles like "Black Hawk Down" and "Killing Pablo". But if you're a fan of his work, the subject matter or just love history, politics and stories told from multiple perspectives by the people that lived them, this is a great book to check out.
In my opinion this is Bowden's best work. His detail and research is unparalleled and the story itself couldn't be any more wild if it was fiction. Bowden offers a gripping look inside the many faces of Escobar, from the ruthless cartel boss that waged war on the Columbian state to the concerned family man who fought fiercely to keep his family safe.
The wealth, violence and details are shocking and Bowden's ability to organize so many narratives and perspectives into a single, cohesive timeline makes for one of the best non-fiction titles I've ever read. Having both the audiobook and the paperback, the abridged audiobook doesn't exclude much. As for the audiobook, Bowden's delivery, often direct and with disregard for political correctness, exponentially improves the quality of the audiobook as you get the sense that the man who did the research is telling you a great campfire story.
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