Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Book Review: Lines & Shadows by Joseph Wambaugh

Lines and Shadows by Joseph Wambaugh depicts the results of a real-life law-enforcement experiment that was conceived of by Dick Snider, an officer with the San Diego police department. Snider had a deep sympathy for the illegal immigrants crossing over from Mexico through the canyons on the border. Snider was well aware that these illegals were being attacked, robbed, beaten, raped, and abused by Mexican bandits who ambushed them in the dark, treacherous canyons. The boarder patrol was only interested in arresting boarder crossers, not protecting them or policing the canyons where visibility was nearly nil at night. Snider launched a one-man media campaign to raise awareness of the horrors experienced by these illegal immigrants. Somehow, against all odds, he convinced the media, the public, and (most remarkably) the Chief of Police that a task force was needed to protect the poor, suffering immigrants from the bandits in the canyons. Thus a San Diego police task force (The Board Crime Task Force) made up of mostly officers of Mexican decent, a rarity in the force, was formed.

Wambaugh reveals in the opening lines of the book that this experimental task force had a detrimental effect on the psyches of the officers who were assigned. We learn right off that three members of the team needed psychological counseling in the years that followed. Step by step we learn that their initiative of stopping the bandits in the canyons was much more like warfare in Vietnam than any ordinary (i.e. safe, normal) police work in San Diego. Over the course of the book the reader is privy to the gradual erosion of each officer’s sanity as the job gets more and more dangerous. The marriages of a few of the officers hang by a thread, not only because of the physical risks, but also due to the drinking and carousing the cops indulge in as a sort of celebration of another day of survival. Acclaim and notoriety go to their heads, as reporters and groupies swarm around them, as they are held up for public consumption as the last of the mythic gunslingers. If only their fans had the inside view that the reader is afforded, that their busts were typically characterized by bungling to such an extent that it was a miracle that they survived to reach the bar that night. Wambaugh makes it clear that each man had his own personal demons driving him to make this task force work and that each man displayed extraordinary bravery by taking on this work in the first place. However, as things got worse and worse, it’s almost funny how awful their performance as team really was. For instance, two of the cops were shot by their own team members. Also they clashed repeatedly with their counterparts on the Mexican side of the boarder and with the US boarder patrol. The reader is left with the impression that the canyons were an untenable disaster and that in some ways the cops amplified the messiness of an already messy situation.

One cop especially stands out from the team, Manny Lopez, the obvious leader and spokesperson. What’s memorable about Manny is his unflinching egotism about the job. Manny consistently laid aside caution and went in with guns blazing. The other cops came to regard him as a bit mad, or at the very least a very lucky psychopath and spotlight hog. There are several instances when the members of the team shake their heads in wonder that Manny didn’t get himself killed, that he didn’t get them all killed. Wambaugh leaves the reader with a vivid visual impression of Manny too: his extraordinarily expressive eyebrow that craws up his head when he’s confronted or challenged, his John Travolta suit right out of Saturday Night Fever, his swagger, and his intimidating presence. Each officer on the team is vividly realized by Wambaugh, but Manny’s charisma and insanity is depicted with special flare.

Wambaugh’s style might be thought by some as heavy handed and a bit manipulative. Yet I found the foreshadowing at the beginning of each chapter to be quite successful, mainly because I knew the content was reportage of real events. Wambaugh’s storytelling strategy is to hint, warn, and prophecy that things are going to get worse, marriages will pay a price, officers will become paranoid of each other, someone will get shot, things will be as awful as the nightmares the officers were starting to have, and ultimately the myth of the gunslingers will not hold up to the scrutiny of reality. Wambaugh also effectively uses refrains of quotations to carry themes through out the book. The reader is invited to share in the code words used by the cops and mottoes they told themselves to keep themselves going. There is a feel of ritual to the book as a whole.

Reading Lines and Shadows by Joseph Wambaugh put me inside the skin of ten cops who experienced the essence of fear and the poison of celebrity. This was the first Wambaugh book I’ve read; it’s also a rarity for me in that it is a true story. Apparently Wambaugh is well revered for producing non-fiction that reads like a novel, and although I’m a bit late jumping on that bandwagon, I wholeheartedly agree with that reverence. Lines and Shadows is suspenseful as any thriller and these real cops are equally as empathetic as any made-up characters in a novel. The book is eloquent, literary, and grants the reader a look inside the heads of all those involved in this unprecedented experiment in law enforcement.

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