This ain’t your grandpa’s reefer madness but instead a swirling, energetic, decidedly offbeat history of a man and a time history has largely forgotten, and not for any lack of effort of his own.
In the 1920s, Harry Anslinger (1892-1975) came out of the railyards and worked his way into the position of the nation’s first drug czar, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In that role, he hounded the Italians, the blacks, the Reds, the Hispanics, and just about everyone who could be implicated in a war on drugs that, Chasin (Literary Studies/Lang Coll., The New School; Brief: A Novel, 2013, etc.) remonstrates, has been a costly failure ever since. The author styles her approach as “kaleidoscopic,” which has nicely psychedelic reverberations but offers no end of possibilities for preciousness, much of which she seizes—e.g., “what if we accept that all vision is distorted one way or another, and insist not on plain correction but on rich distortions?” It’s Derrida all over again and several decades behind the times. The rhetorical effect is sometimes playful, sometimes cloying: “Over there, over there, in The Hague, Harry had put on ideological weight”; “Or what’s a roundhouse for? Every track is ambidextrous”; “With a nod to the blurring of genres that characterizes the work of the narcotics agent, the Saturday Evening Post sings the praises of this special agent.” Blurring of genres? Ambidextrous? Postmodern cuteness aside, Chasin delivers an often interesting portrait of both G-men and G-war, both of which operated in the shadow of the attention-getting J. Edgar Hoover in Anslinger’s own time—and the second of which has lasted into our own time, as, with a pointed nod to the recent case of Sandra Bland, Chasin decries.
Though written as if in a first-thought, best-thought reverie, there’s useful wheat among the chaff.