Review: Howard Marks – Mr. Nice

Mr. NiceMr. Nice by Howard Marks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Somehow, the notoriety of Marks entirely passed me by. As a consequence, this review is being written not only from the point of view of someone who knew nothing of him before reading the book, but also from that of someone who knows nothing of him but the book.

The autobiography of a big-time smuggler of marijuana, this book held out the promise of taking me into realms unknown to me and that, in approaching it, was its main point of interest.

I began to wince a little early on in the work. Marks is at great pains to tell us he is a nice guy, right the way through to the book’s title, a name which just happened, by chance, to be one of the many aliases under which he operated. That assertion raised questions for me given an early connection of his in the facilitation of his enterprises was one Irishman by the name of McCann, a member of the IRA. McCann is presented as something of a buffoon and thus, implicitly, harmless, but this buffoon proves to be alarmingly adept at hiding in plain sight from arrest, organising those things Marks needs organising and having the authorities chase their tails every time he is actually apprehended. One can’t help feeling that he was no incompetent within the IRA itself, and Marks’ assertion that no one is supposed to get hurt from his activities does seem a little strange when considering where some of the profit from those enterprises, that channelled to McCann, may well have ended up.

Likewise, the inevitable end in its affecting his parents and family with his imprisonment in the USA was not without collateral damage. Though Marks doesn’t treat this latter fact as lightly as he does his IRA connection, there’s still the feeling that realisation coming much earlier, when he was already made for life, may have been better than the path he took seemingly inexorably towards its troublesome end seeing little consideration for the well being of those around him. Mr. Nice may have been a little more open with us about the clear and apparent fact that selfish interests played a large role in his activities. It wouldn’t have damned him to hell, but it would have made for a more rounded, and more believable, self-portrait.

Beyond that, the narrative is disappointing. This is a man who led an interesting life in the places he visited, the activities he undertook whatever we may judge him as being, and that appeal of the work, as I said, was paramount for me in approaching it. The book fails to live up to its promise in that respect. The narrative is fairly flat, detail is lost, even entire scenes and even, one suspects, entire novels’-worth of material as Marks hops from place to place, activity to activity each of which holds so much promise for revelation only to be whisked away as soon as presented. This is doubly-underlined in the people Marks met. We know they were in the vicinity – the same room, the same restaurant, even the same table for dinner – and yet the names are merely dropped with little or no interaction recorded. Some of the names dropped – John Lennon and Bill Clinton spring to mind – were dropped just a little too frequently given Marks can’t even claim to have met them.

Places, activities, people – by the end I was feeling almost as if I was reading a book of lists with some marginalia. Scam after scam after scam is presented, but it soon wears thin without the substance to back it up. In the end, he may as well be a salesman of garden furniture chuntering on and on about the import restrictions on deckchairs.

As the book approached its end, I longed for Marks to get banged up, not as a fitting end to his activities, (I’ve nothing against marijuana and consider its illegality a nonsense), but because I knew from the beginning that’s where he’d end up and I wanted some break from the monotony.

Unfortunately, insofar as the prison scenery does perk the narrative up at the end, it is more the change of scenery than any real insights offered even there that lend them their relief.

This is not a bad book. For it to have been bad with all that Marks has to offer by way of experience would have taken some kind of demented genius. It is, however, a book that doesn’t live up to its promise. It is a missed opportunity as Marks loses the chance to make something fascinating not only of the life he has led, but also of himself.

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