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Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade

Robert Sabbag

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Apr 20, 2017
Category: Non Fiction

“Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions told law enforcement officials last month. And that starts with marijuana, which, he says, is “only slightly less awful” than heroin. But his imperative to bust a $50 billion business that half of America believes should be legalized has not reached the enforcement division. Here’s Russ Baer, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration: “Our attention is so focused on the opioid epidemic right now. That’s where we’ve committed the vast majority of our resources.” Still, on 4/20, the annual marijuana holiday, let’s admit it: Marijuana is a gateway drug. It leads to Chinese food, music under headphones, excessive passion and worse. In 1974, it led Zachary Swan to a smuggling operation that started with weed, led to cocaine and then to the most enjoyable book ever written about — well, it’s more about entrepreneurship than it is about drugs.

In the mid-1970s, I found myself at Elaine’s seated next to Nora Ephron. She raved about a book by a first-time writer no one knew – like: how could that be? I bought the book the next day and, because it was not just good but outright great, I read it as slowly as possible, making the pleasure last.

Then I called the author.

Bob Sabbag turned out to be small and wiry and not likely to be going to Elaine’s any time soon. At one point, I suggested he read an article in The New Yorker. “This month’s issue?” he asked, and at that moment we became friends for life.

I recently read Bob’s book again. It is still that good. Better, in a way, because although it was a big book for a generation of young writers, no one has successfully imitated his style. It’s as Louis Armstrong said of Bix Beiderbecke: “Lotta guys want to play like Bix. Ain’t nobody done it yet.”

You’ll notice I have not led with the subject of the book. For good reason. “Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade” is the story of a successful package designer named, in these pages, Zachary Swan. He starts smoking marijuana and soon discovers the high school truth that if you buy a pound and sell 15 ounces yours is free. Then he moves on to cocaine, where a small chunk is exponentially more profitable.

We now know what coke is: addictive, reality-distorting and available mostly from people who would be called “bad company.” In the early 1970s, it was something much more innocent: a party drug. And it was a kind of amusing challenge: How do you smuggle a kilo of the stuff from Colombia to New York without getting busted?

Zachary Swan did it successfully many times. That is the real subject of the book — how a prankster uses his creativity and immaturity in the service of an enterprise that will put him behind bars for quite some time if he screws up or has bad luck. Essentially, it’s “The Thomas Crown Affair,” just with a different commodity. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

There are wonderful characters in these pages: Honest Ellery, Nice Mickey (and, yes, there’s a Mean Mickey too). Crazy Leslie (because someone must have a gun), the Lothario (“one of the world’s most accomplished assmen”), Bad Breaks Billy, the Canadian — you get the idea. And there are brilliant importing schemes: coke in religious statues, coke in rolling pins delivered to unsuspecting girlfriends, coke in gifts carried home by couples who have won a “contest” created by Swan.

Sabbag writes in an afterword, “Never in the history of American literature, I would venture to say, has a book been purchased by so many people who had never before purchased a book in their lives.” Fools! Yes, this is a how-to book — for 1974.  But these techniques went out with the Nixon administration; it’s a much nastier business today.

“Snowblind” now has cult status. It’s an “underground classic.” Too bad. The book is a romp, a giggle, a writing lesson, a cautionary tale — and, in its category, a kind of masterpiece. I envy all of you who have never read it and have such gems as the Duplicate Bag Switch ahead of you.