By John Lee Brook
Reviewed by Christopher Zoukis
Gangs are rampant throughout the prison system. One of the most notorious prison gangs of the 1980s and 1990s was the Aryan Brotherhood. According to John Lee Brook, who wrote Blood In, Blood Out, the Aryan Brotherhood began in 1964 in San Quentin Prison. A group of white bikers banded together to protect themselves from other gangs, which, back then were called ‘tips.’ Initially, the bikers referred to their gang as the Diamond Tooth tip. Later, the name changed to the Bluebird tip. Finally, they became known as the Aryan Brotherhood.
The author traces the gang’s involvement in producing and distributing crystal meth. Through interviews with a number of gang members, most of who insist on anonymity, the book tells of the rise of a Superlab in the East Bay Area of California. As the story progresses, the personalities and quirks of those involved begin to shine through. One of the more interesting ‘stars’ of the book is Arturo Colano (a pseudonym), who is the sci-guy, the chemist who runs the Superlab. Colano is extravagantly flamboyant, highly intelligent, and more than a little corrupt. Which means he’s a charming rascal, on the one hand. On the other hand, he is the fulcrum on which the see-saw of drug production pivots.
Author John Lee Brook uses an easy, light-hearted, almost quixotic voice as he writes about Colano’s endeavors, along with his sidekick, Wolfman, who is pretty much the handy-andy of the Superlab. In reality, Wolfman is a skinhead and leader of a group of outlaw bikers called Nazi Low Riders. Yet, because of ambition and circumstances, Wolfman finds himself overseeing shipping and receiving, distribution, and money laundering for a vast drug trafficking operation. And although complete opposites when it comes to personality, Colano and Wolfman work well together. Like salt and pepper, they each add their own peculiar zest, complementing each other.
In spite of the quixotic quality, on another level, the author manages to inject a rude, harsh-textured energy into the book. It’s just under the surface all the way through the story. It’s the palpable energy of badness. No matter how charming some of the characters might be, they are outlaws, pure and simple. In short, they are not nice people.
The Aryan Brotherhood’s empire came crashing down in 2002, which was when the Department of Justice brought over 40 high-ranking members of the gang to trial. John Lee Brook takes the reader inside the courtroom, where attorneys exchange verbal feints and jabs like prize fighters, and witnesses, who are mostly former gang members turned informants, attempt to persuade the jury of their sincerity and reliability. How the jury reacts to the testimonies of the informants provides a unique perspective on the inner workings of jury deliberations, as they decide on degrees of culpability and guilt.
John Lee Brook weaves his tale with great skill. All in all, it’s a sensational read. Yet it is this ‘sensational’ aspect that causes the reader to pause and ponder. Since most of the people providing the information are anonymous, one wonders as to their truthfulness. In other words, where does one draw the line between fact and hyperbole? One is irresistibly reminded of the Laocoon group in mythology, with the yarn spinners entwined in the coils of magnanimous self-interest, and the reader trying to fight his way through the twists and knots of incredulity. Which is a polite and literary way of asking if the anonymous blabbermouths are relating objective truth or subjective embellishment? The latter would seem to be a definite possibility. Of course, it’s also possible that, like the Pharisees in the Bible, they are presenting whitewashed versions of their stories, a common human trait. Most people can see the sins of others, yet are blind to their own foibles. Thus, they usually portray themselves as better than they really are.
In either eventuality, Blood In, Blood Out makes for an absorbing read.
On a scale ranging from 1 star to 5 stars (5 stars being the ultimate compliment), Blood In, Blood Out comes in at 4 and one-half stars.
(This review first appeared in the Seattle Post Intelligencer)