I read Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail over one wild, windy weekend, only getting up off the couch to eat, say hi to my long-suffering partner and sleep. Then I checked out some reviews.
Strange, but I agreed with both the 5-star and the 1-star comments. It’s a fascinating, page-turning story, told in a simple, easy-to-read style. It has touches of surreal comic brilliance, as it tells of the narrator Thomas’s survival through incredible hardships and injustices of his 4-year sentence for drug-trafficking in a Bolivian jail. The first-person narration allows Thomas to gloss over the enormity of his crimes, not only of the original trafficking offence, but his subsequent drug-use and drug-dealing inside the prison, his bribery of prison and court officials, and his bashing of other inmates (described by horrified visitors as torture).
Whereas some readers have seen Thomas’s crimes and apparent lack of remorse as a flaw in the story, I see it as a strength of the book’s real author, Rusty Young, who allows “Thomas” to speak for himself, to spin his yarns of prison life in a way that is engaging, but not totally believable – Thomas is the archetypal unreliable narrator and readers can judge him for themselves.
Although I missed some contextualising by the “Rusty” character at the end – some hint that we’re not meant to swallow Thomas’s story uncritically – it wasn’t hard to read between the lines. The overall impression I got is that Thomas the person shares the personality profile of many successful criminals: a sociopath – a narcissistic manipulator who charms people and gets them onside, but always manages to see to his own needs; someone who ultimately has very little moral sense of culpability of responsibility for the hideous crimes he’s perpetrated against others.
Far from being a weakness, I see this narrative choice as one of the story’s strengths. But because of Thomas’s unreliability, I’m not so sure the book should be characterised as “non-fiction” or “biography”.
Review of Marching Powder by Rusty Young by Elizabeth Lhuede is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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