An illumination of the Washington, D.C., crack epidemic.
As a reporter for the Washington Post, Castaneda undoubtedly learned that it can be trouble when a journalist gets too close to his story and even more trouble when the journalist becomes the story. Yet the author, drawing heavily on his experience and reportage in the crack and murder capital of the country, compounds those troubles by pacing his multiple narratives as if writing a novel (re-creating the thoughts of characters in situations he wasn’t even around to witness) or TV series. The most dramatic narrative is the author’s own story, that of someone who was already using crack when he was brought from Los Angeles to the Post to cover crime and quickly escalated into full-blown addiction as the drug became both his beat and his life. The paper sent him to rehab, and he dedicated himself to recovery (after one serious slip); that part of the narrative pretty much disappears halfway through the book. The second narrative concerns the rise and fall of the city’s homicide chief, caught in the political machinations of Mayor Marion Berry’s regime, who became not only a major source for the reporter, but also a closer friend than the subject of a journalist’s coverage should be. Such a close relationship had consequences for both men. The third narrative concerns a minister who built a street church in the middle of a crack-dealing neighborhood and found the head dealer to be a guardian angel protecting the church—“a lovable teddy bear,” or, as one neighbor put it, “the notorious, lovable godfather.” Castaneda interweaves that narrative with the immediacy of the others, though he later explains that he experienced none of this firsthand but only learned of the preacher and the dealer after the fact.
The subject matter is explosive and informed by good reporting, but the various narrative lines never really tie together, and the novelistic approach undermines the journalism.