Verdict: BACKSTRAP is a compelling tale, and it is an achievement of author Johnnie Dun that he is able to present damaged characters in a way that somehow make readers root for them. Without being maudlin, Dun shows characters that can redeem themselves after hitting rock bottom.
The theme in BACKSTRAP is damaged goods, personified in the main character, an Iraq War vet and recovering drug addict. The book calls to mind a Humphrey Bogart movie, in which Bogie starting off cynical and amoral makes his transformation into some type of nobility all the more trustworthy; somehow amorality to morality makes the clichés of self-sacrifice and patriotism convincing.
The main character, Callie improbably working as a bartender (a rehab counselor worth his or her salt would have tried to steer Callie away from the dangers of proximity to this available substitute addiction) wants nothing out of life save the custody of her son. Against Callie’s cynicism, Dun has created an idealistic character, a Mayan woman, who wants to be smuggled into the “dream” that is America.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Callie is forced to return to the hellish world of drug dealing as well as venturing into an equally seedy world of sex trafficking. Dun has wisely juxtaposed these worlds, which, on the surface, appear different; those who buy drugs are hooked; those forced into prostitution rarely are. But both are a business more often than not (although there are independent “entrepreneurs” among drug pushers); both of its victims are “enslaved”—the “sex worker” women to their pimps; the addict to the drug. And both of these “traps’ are difficult to escape from. Often the two businesses overlap; as many “sex workers” are hooked by their handlers on a highly-addictive drug and are promised unlimited quantities of it if they comply with their client’s demands.
It must be said, however, that there are limits to these comparisons, and Dun is aware of them. Save for the occasional pusher who attempts to force the customer back into addiction, sex trafficking has more immediate lethal consequences for women who try to escape. It is a booming business with tentacles reaching into many countries all too eager to supply women, girls, even underage ones to those willing to pay for sex. As such any rebellion from these victims has to be crushed as money is at stake. Like the union-crushing businessmen of old, sex traffickers have their own enforcement branch.
In the Manhattan-based business that funds the sex trafficking out of Guatemala, Callie finds a use for her military skills acquired in Iraq and thus finds a purpose in life. Once again, a foe has forced her to literally put “her body on the line.” Again, without giving too much away, Dun shows that characters finding a more useful purpose in life can fill the hole in their soul previously filled with drugs. And, as with the Bogart comparison, Callie’s disillusionment transforming into nobility is all the more trustworthy for readers.
BACKSTRAP is a compelling tale, and it is an achievement of Dun that he is able to present damaged characters in a way that somehow make readers root for them. Without being maudlin, Dun shows characters that can redeem themselves after hitting rock bottom.
~Ron Capshaw for IndieReader