The tale of a first-time marijuana smuggler finding love and searching for revenge on an East Malaysian island.
Tim Williams owes money to the wrong people. In 1974, he seeks help from his younger brother, Sonny, an engineer with sea experience who agrees to help transport tons of marijuana from Thailand back to San Francisco. Sonny doesn’t mind waiting on the Labuan Island for repairs and refueling thanks to the presence of beguiling nurse Kelli. The crew’s return trip is besieged by pirates and bad weather, but it’s a double cross that ultimately leads Sonny back to Labuan for vengeance. Cubbins (Smugglers’ Blues, 2007) packs a decent amount of information within very little narrative, and he does so quickly and admirably, solidifying the brothers’ shared history and setting up Sonny on the boat in under 20 pages. Sonny doesn’t seem to trust either the ragtag crew he’s stuck with or the dilapidated ship he’s on, but as a ship at sea is wont to do, the story changes course: Sonny comes to respect Capt. Cal and the crew, and he spends the bulk of his time with Kelli, a Labuan local. The narrative redirection is done with surprising ease, as the author gradually turns the story into what’s basically a love story. Yet the novel comes back with heightened suspense when the ship is loaded with marijuana—so many bales that some sit in the shower—and an enigmatic old man, supposedly the employer, is shockingly absent when Sonny and company wind up in prison. The mystery deepens when it comes to light that there’s someone else behind the drug dealing, and a tragedy pits a vendetta-minded Sonny against the most dangerous man of all. Cubbins’ straightforward writing style makes the book a quick read. At the same time, though, the narrative can be eloquently descriptive: Bob, one of the crew, looks as if “he could grow a beard in an afternoon.”
Seafaring knowledge pairs well with a sharp, poised narrative voice.