BOOKS: Wild Cowboys

Robert Jackall
Wild Cowboys
Harvard University Press

David Cargill takes a bullet to the head while driving on the freeway. The disemboweled body of a drug dealer named Maldonado turns up in a park with nine stab wounds. Manuel Vera is on his way home when he is gunned down in an alley along with four others. Authorities suspect a pattern among the ostensibly separate incidents of violence. Washington Heights, the New York City neighborhood known as the birthplace of crack cocaine, apparently has a drug war on its hands.

Author Robert Jackall wrote Wild Cowboys after spending the better part of three years following detectives in New York City's 34th Precinct. This time frame proves a tumultuous time for the squad. Jackall witnesses the rise--and eventual arrest and conviction--of 40 loosely associated drug dealers, hit men, and stick-up kids known as the Wild Cowboys. He is also on hand for the trial of Patrick Regan, an officer whose efforts contributed to the demise of the band. Unfortunately, those efforts included perjury under oath in connection with the Wild Cowboys case. Jackall seizes on such paradoxes--the competing demands of law and order.

The author's attempt to create a narrative by reconstructing fragmented bits of data, while simultaneously attempting to generalize about wider truths, requires patience on the reader's part. This nonfictional account often reads like an action thriller complete with graphic depictions of extreme violence. At other times, the prose nearly grinds to a halt in passages cluttered with background information, such as names, aliases, and histories for an extensive cast of victims, criminals, and law-enforcement agents.

In the end, Jackall does not foresee a conclusion to widespread episodes of chaos and murder unless society confronts issues plaguing inner-city life. The drug trade, which seems so far removed from the middle class, is certain to enter a new phase that will literally bring it closer to home. In the final pages, key players are brought to justice and the streets return to a relative state of calm. Meanwhile, just beyond the horizon, another group of Wild Cowboys awaits its turn to ride.

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