COCAINE by Dominic Streatfeild


An Unauthorized Biography
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A hyperactive celebration of Erythroxylum coca and its most powerful by-product.

Erythroxylum, British documentary producer Streatfeild oxymoronically writes, is “a peculiarly ordinary-looking shrub native to South America.” Generations of Indians have prized it for its wondrous abilities to propel a person over the tallest mountain or down the longest river, tests of stamina that few connoisseurs outside the Andes have been called on to duplicate; even so, from the earliest days of Spanish colonization, Europeans have been avid for the stuff and have made fortunes in the coca trade. Streatfeild takes a voracious and largely uncritical approach to storytelling; if a datum has anything whatever to do with cocaine, it gets shoved into the narrative somehow, no matter how well known it might be (Sigmund Freud used cocaine, and so did the good chemists at the Coca-Cola plant). He is good in describing the healing effects cocaine has had on the pocketbooks of South American farmers, who can realize four or five times as much profit from the stuff as they could from, say, avocadoes or oranges; he is also good at stating plainly why cocaine has become so ubiquitous in consumer markets around the world: “Here’s the first truth about cocaine: it’s fun. And because it’s fun people want to use it.” Yet Streatfeild too often hides his lamp under a bushel of verbiage, as when he describes first looking into the pages of an English doctor’s medical history of coca: “Initially you pick him up and he sucks you in, but after a short period you begin to feel unwell and you wish you hadn’t started—like the moment in a horror film when you realize that this is actually quite scary stuff, or the feeling when you reach the top of the hill on a roller coaster and it tips forward with a clunk and, despite the fact that there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, you realize that you’ve made quite a terrible mistake and that actually you’d like to get off now.”

So readers will feel on dipping into this box of snuff. In the hands of a seasoned writer—for some reason Hunter Thompson comes to mind—this might have had some oomph. As it is, best to just say no.

Pub Date: June 17th, 2002
ISBN: 0-312-28624-4
Page count: 528pp
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2002