As flawed, paradoxical beings we all insist on being innocent—the rest of humanity be damned. Newly recruited desktop-publisher Nick Fillmore harbors that peculiar middle-class fascination with criminality, and involves himself with heroin dealers, including the attention-hungry Claire, former roommate of Nick’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, “L.”
Managed by suave Nigerian Alhaji, couriered by college students and risk-positive others such as Claire’s “witchy” sister, Hester, the op’s earnings soon sprout black flowers of paranoia—easy money, indeed. Also a legit businessman, Alhaji “worked his way up” in Lagos, got arrested, escaped from prison and asserted himself via drug-dealing. Outside U.S. jurisdiction, he manages to snuggle up with the government of Republic du Benin, such arrangements all-too-common in our Real World. A heroin shipment vanishes from an airport transit lounge, and Nick is called to West Africa for some sort of oath—involving, perhaps, voodoo?—with the Nigerian mafia. Customs officials at Chicago O’Hare make a surprise visit, and arrest courier Perry. Here is where paranoia really files nerve-endings while Nick and Carl sweat out two hours waiting in a hotel lobby. How long can anyone, let alone the most polished operators, withstand this pulsing anxiety?
Author Nicholas Fillmore gives readers far more existential jolt (without necessarily breaking flow) than is usually found in crime thrillers. What stands out is that these people are not soulless players ignorant of consequences; they’re choosing to do these things. It should come as no surprise that the novel comprises the actual events behind Orange is the New Black. The story, incidentally, began as a screenplay during Fillmore’s incarceration in the 1990s. Once released, teaching English, and inspired by editor Phillip Lopate’s anthology THE ART OF THE PERSONAL ESSAY, the author novelized SMUGGLER. Another reviewer lamented the book’s “light-hearted” tone, but this aligns with Fillmore’s statement that, during writing, “ . . . the weight of the world had been lifted off of my shoulders and I was very happy indeed.” Context is everything.
From Provincetown to Chicago and Paris to Jakarta, SMUGGLER pulls off a seemingly impossible mix of visceral, emotional, and psychological realism—all without sacrificing the thrill of vicarious transgression or entertainment. Protagonist (and author) Nick Fillmore’s reflection and restrictive interactions never bore and—like the narrative—are rich with cutting insight.
~William Grabowski for IndieReader