- 15 Jul 22
A New Yorker State Of Mind
While he might be slightly better known in these parts for books like Say Nothing, which used the kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville as a foundation on which to build an examination, told from both sides, of the troubles in Northern Ireland, or Empire Of Pain, the shocking story of the Sackler family and their part in the OxyContin problem in America, the brilliant Patrick Radden Keefe has been gripping readers with his investigative journalism for years. Indeed, Empire of Pain was an extension of a 2017 article “The Family That Built An Empire Of Pain”, originally published in The New Yorker, and “Where The Bodies Are Buried”, from the same magazine two years earlier, begins with McConville’s story.
While those two articles are not included in Rogues, a collection of his work for that august publication where Keefe has worked since 2006, the ones that are speak to both his enviable writing skills and his nose for a fascinating story.
Even his subjects, although few come out smelling of roses, can’t help but admire the man’s acumen. In the preface we hear how a lawyer for the Guzmán family – the family of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, the notorious Mexican drug lord – left a voice mail in the office for Keefe. He hummed and hawed but he did call him back, despite his fear that revelations such as El Chapo’s vigorous Viagra use might have offended El Señor, only to be offered the opportunity to write the kingpin’s memoirs. Keefe did think about it, although not one suspects for long, but decided to decline as “the whole scenario felt a bit like Act I of a thriller in which the hapless magazine writer, blinded by his desire for a scoop, does not necessarily survive Act III.”
The original article, ‘The Hunt For El Chapo’ – published 2015 - is included and it’s little wonder that many narcocorridos or narco ballads are sung in Mexico about the story because it has enough twists and turns to make most of Hollywood’s output look like a half-arsed school play. Guzmán worked his way up from apprentice in the Sinaloa Cartel and proved himself to be a bit of a Houdini, escaping from Puente Grande Prison in Jalisco in 2001, although criminal charges were brought against seventy-one people who worked at the facility, including the warden, so some money may have changed hands. Guzmán hid in the mountains, but he liked to dance, he liked good food, and he liked the company of women, often professional ones, which meant he had to come to town now and again. The Mexican marines finally got close to him, through possible torture of his associates, but when they raided his ex-wife’s house, they were delayed by an advanced steel door that just wouldn’t give, allowing El Chapo, the man who had invented the cross-border cartel tunnel, the time he needed to escape through a hatch hidden under the bath.
They tracked him again, to the resort town of Mazatlán where he surrendered to save his children. He was moved to Mexico’s most secure prison although some felt he had allowed himself to be captured so he could enjoy some retirement time. He would escape again before finally being locked up in ADX, Colorado, America’s most secure prison. Chillingly, Keefe reports that El Chapo once told marines “that he had killed between two and three thousand people. If this figure includes not just individuals he murdered personally but people he authorised subordinates to kill, it is surely a gross understatement.” It would seem he was right to turn down that memoir offer.
That’s merely one of the splendid articles on offer. While TV executive Mark Burnett – now half of a serious power couple with Irish woman and former angel Roma Downey – may shudder at the memory of the 2016 Emmy Awards, the night the host called him out by name as the man responsible for Donald Trump’s presidential run, he does have to shoulder a lot of the blame. It was Burnett who gave us The Apprentice, the ratings juggernaut that, as Keefe puts it, “portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth – a titan who always seems to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines”. American’s fell for it. One contestant, an MBA from Harvard who previously worked for Goldman Sachs, found it hard to believe, “Main street America saw the most successful person in the universe. The people I knew in the world of high finance understood that it was all a joke.” Soon enough there would be very few people laughing.
Was Hervé Falciani striking a blow for the little man by attempting to expose HSBC, the Swiss banking system, and rich tax evaders everywhere when he stole computer files for his place of work, or was he out to line his own pockets? And while we're in the world of high finance, what about billionaire hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen, his underling Matthew Martoma, and Dr Sid Gilman? When an Alzheimer drug didn't quite live up to expectations, how did Cohen's fund, who had been heavily invested, avoid taking a serious bath? Was it a "gut" move, or was there something else going on? And speaking of the filthy rich, is it possible to feel sympathy for tycoon Bill Koch, whose art and antiques collection alone is valued at several hundred million dollars, and others like him when a German wine collector sells him what might be a pup? Were the bottles once owned by Thomas Jefferson or are they clever fakes, and does it matter anyway? As Keefe tells us, a lot of these vintage wine are kept for years before being opened, if they are ever opened at all, and even then very few people have the expertise necessary to tell the difference. Like most collections, these things would appear to be about the bragging rights as much as anything else.
Not everybody comes out of Rogues with mud on them, mind. You'd have to take your hat off to the determination of Ken Dornstein to see justice done for his brother David who died in the Lockerbie bombing, and Astrid Holleeder turns against her brother, famed dutch gangster Wim 'The Nose' Holleeder, despite the seismic effect such actions have on her own life. The book closes with an affectionate portrait of the late chef/travel writer and broadcaster Anthony Bourdain, a man who "spent the first half of his life preparing food to feed others. He would spend the second half getting fed." It's pointed out, as Bourdain admitted himself, that perhaps he wasn't an inspired chef. He was offered his own restaurant on several occasions, "but he always declined, mindful, perhaps, that his renown as a bard of the kitchen might be difficult to equal in the kitchen itself". I can't attest to Bourdain's skills with a skillet but if someone as handy with a typewriter as Keefe is complimenting his writing ability, it's high praise indeed.
Back to the preface. Keefe, as a younger man, "came to think that at least where nonfiction was concerned, a big magazine article might be the most glorious form". The reader need only dive into to any one of these dazzling essays to have that assertion confirmed. They'll also surely come to the same conclusion that I and many others already reached; Patrick Radden Keefe is one of the, if not the, finest practitioners of that glorious form at work today.