‘The Last Pirate’ a poignant tale of drug smuggling
‘The Last Pirate is a meticulously researched history of America’s rocky relationship with marijuana, largely populated by a lackadaisically skilled crew of smugglers, distributors and dealers who imported carefully packed Colombian pot into the United States during the 1970s and ’80s. It’s also a memoir about a son struggling to process his abandonment by a dope-obsessed, deadbeat dad who happened to be a key figure in all that smuggling, distributing and dealing. And, as those first two descriptions suggest, it’s the kind of narrative that screams out to be adapted into a gritty, layered cable TV drama with a prime-time slot on AMC or FX.
With an antiheroic father leading a dual life and family values juxtaposed with the criminal’s code, The Last Pirate unfolds like a literary cousin of shows like The Americans, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. In fact, a Breaking Bad connection smacks the reader in the face on the very first page, when the author, Tony Dokoupil, flashes back to a 1988 night in Albuquerque, when his mother repeatedly dug into the soil outside a cousin’s home in search of a Styrofoam cooler.
That cooler had been buried there by her husband. And it contained $500,000 in stacked-and-bagged cash.
If Dokoupil’s dad, Anthony – Big Tony to his son’s Little – is the Walter White in this scenario, that makes the writer of this fine work of nonfiction a Walt Jr. of sorts: the son left to wonder why his daddy loved trafficking in illegal substances more than he loved his own boy.
Anthony Dokoupil, one of only four characters in The Last Pirate whose names haven’t been changed to protect the non-innocent, is a more benign figure than Walter White. More important, his story is true, and Tony Dokoupil – a senior writer for NBC News, George Washington University alumnus and son of a man responsible for distributing “at least fifty tons” of cannabis during the years that “spanned the drug war from Nixon to Reagan” – brings to it the rigor of a seasoned journalist and the rollicking prose of a kid who clearly inherited a healthier version of his old man’s zest for adventure.
“The cocaine cowboys were sportscars, speedboats, discos, machine guns, and cleanly shaven faces,” Dokoupil writes, describing types of smugglers who profited happily, for a while, during the “Just Say No” early ’80s. “The marijuana dealers were pickup trucks, sailboats, acoustic guitars, baseball bats, and Pancho Villa mustaches. . . . The cocaine cowboys murdered cops and bribed judges while marijuana dealers tipped their caps at the law and wished their competitors a happy chase.”
According to The Last Pirate, the providers of pot were the most fun-lovin’ criminals around, man, the kind of guys who were beach-bum buddies with Jimmy Buffett, who partied in luxury hotel rooms after a haul had been delivered and who were smart enough to move their contraband-laden vessels during the East Coast regatta season, when the boats carrying marijuana sailed in plain sight next to the clean ones, all headed for ports in Cape Cod, the Hamptons or the Chesapeake Bay.
In a way, The Last Pirate is its own tip of the cap to the men (and, very occasionally, women) who fueled reefer madness the old-fashioned, sneaking-it-across-the-border way, even when public policy shifted.