Rusty Young’s biography on the life and times of Thomas McFadden during his incarceration in San Pedro, Bolivia’s most notorious prison, for smuggling cocaine is a sometimes shocking sometimes mundane account of a truly bizarre situation.
Marching Powder is a genuinely interesting read that holds up a world that few of us can really appreciate and teases out the corruption, humanity and horror of Bolivia’s penal system. Thomas McFadden comes across as a cocky, but likeable soul that struggles to find a place for himself in an unwelcoming surrounding. The ‘Gringo’ is in danger pretty much from the outset, as his lack of understanding of how things work in Bolivia proves to be his undoing. However, with the help of a few kindly characters he eventually starts to get the basics and battles to attain both status and enough money to buy his own cell. Despite this though, the reality of the situation never really escapes you even when you read about Thomas’ mod-con apartment in the prison, because it is always interspersed with tales of brutal revenge killings, beatings, corruption and torture.
Interwoven throughout all of this is the ever-present drugs underworld. Cocaine is manufactured inside the prison and it is by all accounts the purest there is. Consequently there are many hedonistic parties that break up the drudge of the incarceration, however for me these were the more hum drum sections of the book.
From the very get go you know that you’re in for the long haul and that you have to stick with the book to find out how things end. Although, there are also juggernaut sections that charge you forward through harrowing, dramatic and heart warming slices of Thomas’ life in San Pedro.
Rusty Young’s Marching Powder was pulled together from his Dictaphone recordings and note pad scrawled interviews with Thomas McFadden, whom he befriends while on his own journey around the world. Overall it’s a really good read, with many memorable moments. But with all of the drama happening throughout the book, the end feels a little anti-climactic. I guess that’s just the way things go with real life stories, but I can’t help but feel that the closing chapters were a little rushed and probably didn’t do justice to the story.
Marching Powder, by Rusty Young, review: 3.8/5
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