Undercover: Blinded By the Light (01/27/77)

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t consider reviewing a book already excerpted in Rolling Stone, but Robert Sabbag‘s Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade (Bobbs-Merrill, 284 pp., $8.95) is too good to pass up. I should say straightaway that I haven’t had a better time with any book I’ve read in the past year—I was, and you may be, put off by the dust-jacket quotes, which led me to think Snowblind would be merely another attempt to epiphanize the horrors that in this tiresome decade daily oppress us all, which is to say simply a stylized version of that oppression, or, at the very least, one more solipsistic exploration of the vagaries of middle-class “survival,” a notion that seems to have become the principal intellectual motif of the Seventies. Claude Brown tells us that after reading Snowblind “one is overcome with the sense of having finally understood America”; Susan Brownmiller assures us that “Snowblind did terrible things to the pit of my stomach”; Richard Rhodes speculates on the suffering Sabbag must have gone through to get his story; Hunter Thompson invokes Dog Soldiers. Forget it. Snowblind is enormous fun before, and probably after, it is anything else; it is funny. Part of the joke belongs to the book’s hero, 50-year-old ex-jet-setter and coke smuggler Zachary Swan; the rest can be credited to Sabbag.snowblind-ad

The appeal of Snowblind lies in the delight of Sabbag’s writing, and in the fabulous schemes Swan contrives to get his goods past customs and at the same time immunize his carriers from any chance of arrest. I’m not going to detail any of these; they’re too complicated, and at any rate they provide the essential suspense of the story. As for the writing, it seems to me that Sabbag has managed to combine the verve of Hunter Thompson’s best stuff (without the self-promotion) with the sardonic, faintly cynical humor of Raymond Chandler. This allows Sabbag to keep his distance—as Swan’s chronicler, he is never his sycophant—but also to bring his characters, places, events and adventures to life. The pacing may come from Thompson; the descriptive flair is rarer coin. Here is Chandler’s sketch of the Hollywood Indian in Farewell, My Lovely:

He wore a brown suit of which the coat was too small for his shoulders and his trousers were probably a little tight under the armpits. His hat was at least two sizes too small and had been perspired in freely by somebody it fitted better than it fitted him. He wore it about where a house wears a wind vane. His collar had the snug fit of a horsecollar and was of about the same shade of dirty brown. A tie dangled outside his buttoned jacket, a black tie which had been tied with a pair of pliers in a knot the size of a pea.

And Sabbag, on a minor player in Swan’s great game:

Michel Bernier embodied all those individual characteristics that Americans find distasteful in a man—he was French. Dark, lean and languid, he wore his heritage like a badge. He was heir to the loose mouth, sunken cheeks and puffy lips that enable the French to deal with their language. He had the eyes of a kept woman and the deep, sultry voice of a Boul Mich cafe singer. He was narrow at the hip, his wrists were limp, and he moved with the fluidity of a worm. Many women and not a few men found him handsome.

Compared to Chandler, Sabbag is perhaps a little too steady with the knife, once his target has been pinned with that wonderful first line, but the two writers share the sideways attack, the pleasure in seeking out the right word, the use of unexpected visual detail. No emotion comes through but disgust, and a kind of awe at the ways of the world.

I leave it to the reader to discover the pleasures of Sabbag’s pleasantly amoral, virtually messageless book. For myself, I am waiting to see what he does next, and hoping that he won’t allow a magazine like Esquire to turn him into a supercilious, self-important imitation of his best self. Writers of Sabbag’s talent come along very rarely, and few keep, let alone extend, their talent very long. But I think we all have a lot to look forward to.


HIS MASTER’S VOICE


The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler/English Summer: A Gothic Romance (Ecco Press/Viking, 113 pp., $10). This disgracefully overpriced volume collects odds and ends, excluding letters, that survived Chandler’s destruction of most of his papers and notebooks; included are lists of slang expressions, book titles, similes (“A face like a collapsed lung”) and “Chandlerisms” (“Above the sky-blue gabardine slacks he wore a two-tone leisure jacket that would have been revolting on a zebra”), various marginal notes on other authors, a very poor article on screenwriting, a hilarious parody of Hemingway, whose writing Chandler loved, various comments on the detective story, some photos, and so on. Some of the stuff is excellent (an item titled “Beyond Disgust,” which consists of a passage from a Saturday Evening Post story and Chandler’s bitter comment on it, tells one a good deal about Chandler’s sensibility), but most of it was used in Frank McShane’s excellent biography, The Life of Raymond Chandler, and it is absurd that this thin little volume should appear when Raymond Chandler Speaking, a first-rate collection of articles and letters, remains out of print. As for English Summer, it is a short story, and the kind of thing that is published when a writer is famous, respected and dead.


Rolling Stone, January 27, 1977


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One thought on “Undercover: Blinded By the Light (01/27/77)

  1. Pingback: More on Writing | White Sun of the Desert

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