Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
In his novel, “Suburban Gangsters,” Michael P. Dineen paints a bleak picture of the drug dealing/criminal culture on Long Island, spanning the 1980s right through the War on Drugs of the 2000s. And while Dineen is dealing with a difficult and often ugly story, he has managed to create an engaging and occasionally darkly humorous chronicle.
Clearly, the book is a fictional account of his own life, told first person through Huntington resident Patrick Hunter. While Hunter was born in New York City, he was raised on Long Island. And while his experience focuses mainly on the drug dealing issues that were faced locally, he tells a universal story.
Hunter is the son of a cold and demanding Army vet and New York City firefighter. He starts off as an athlete but strays from the path. He can trace the turning point to his father refusing to co-sign a car loan for him. “Had my conversation gone differently with my father in the spring of 1985, I may have never become a criminal.” By his junior year, it is this deep-seated anger with his father that turns this jock into a burnout and juvenile delinquent.
A combination of intense training and steroids also fuel his rage and anti-social behavior. He and his friends “trained like animals” in this hybrid martial art called American Combat Karate. His change in personality draws him to like-minded and like-feeling young people. He begins using cocaine and then successfully selling it. “I had no clue that we had just opened Pandora’s box.” This metaphor points to the perils that follow.
Dealing out of his home, Hunter could clear $5,000 to $10,000 a week. “For being average kids from the suburbs, that was serious dough. And we were just starting to scratch the surface of this modern-day gold rush.”
It’s not long before the enterprise begins to grow: “Settling into a nice routine, we began expanding the scope of our business. In addition to selling cocaine, we were now selling steroids, pain pills, other pharmaceuticals, and even small amounts of marijuana. And we also began some small loan sharking.”
Hunter gives an unflinching description of the toll that cocaine and crack cocaine have taken on the community. Throughout the book, there are devastating reports of destruction — both of people and property. (A wilding incident secures his gang’s creed but also called them to the police’s attention.) It is a brutal world where the anger and danger manifest in violent and senseless brawling. The only loyalty in this cutthroat existence is to money. There are many stories here of drug users that involve beatings and worse.
His life is populated with equally damaged souls. When he falls in love, drugs predictably complicate his life. His girlfriend (and later wife), Vanessa, is a cocaine user and later addicted to pain pills. He shows that there is no emotional security when dealing with an addict. Love may blur the problems but it won’t make them go away. His partner, Jake, is a study in contrast. Jake is a high risk-taker and that causes a much earlier fall than Hunter. Even those who are committed to him in their own way are a liability in this hard society.
The first shift is when dealers begin making deals with the police and FBI. As they begin to roll over, it becomes an era defined by survival. The narrative refrain is to “trust no one” as the likelihood is betrayal. His life alternates between dealing and partying and hiding and running.
Throughout the narrative, Hunter addresses issues of karma. The fact that he is the one who hooks Vanessa on Percodan (and eventually she goes back to cocaine) is just as much his fault as hers. There is the overall ruin that visits all who are involved. “When you are caught up in the hustle game making easy money, it’s almost impossible to voluntarily stop. It’s just as hard to stop dealing drugs, as it is to stop using drugs. Making that money becomes just as addictive.”
In addition to the drug world, there is theft. A gang called the Crash and Carry Gang are featured throughout. A highly dangerous crew that steals and fences, the intersection of Hunter and these men only furthers his twisted existence.
After a number of years, Hunter shifts his dealing to only selling marijuana and becoming a police informant. This gives both security and the ability to rat out the competition. He and his second partner, Big Ray, make a fortune while serving as police informants:
“We just finished a two-year run of basically being able to deal drugs with police protection. Our involvement with them and setting up that huge bust allowed us to operate while they looked the other way. It may sound crazy, but it’s true. Had you told me back in 1985 that seven years later I would still be dealing, only acting as a double agent by being a federal informant, I would have said you were nuts. But that is the insanity of this lifestyle. If you weren’t smart enough to roll with the changing times, you would have the life expectancy of a housefly.”
The fact is, by this time, everyone was either being caught or flipping. Everyone with whom Hunter had been involved was either cooperating or in jail.
Through all of this, glimmers of Hunter’s humanity come through. There is a poignant account of the death of a friend to heroin overdose (one of many in his journey).
His love for the daughter he has by Vanessa and his fear for her safety is also very honest. The devastating loss of his karate mentor coincides with the dissolution of his marriage.
And in 1998, Hunter gets hooked on painkillers. The final portion of the book, entitled “To Hell and Back,” is the ultimate karmic payback. He begins the section with an unflinching assessment of the opioid and heroin crises:
“The painful truth is no one seemed to care when heroin was devastating the inner city minority neighborhoods. Now that Little Johnny and Suzy from the bourgeoisie started dying, people finally started taking notice. That is politics for you. … For years, my fellow criminals and I cashed in on the suffering and unquenchable desire of a population that demanded drugs. It was almost like taking candy from a baby, it was so easy. But now the universe was about to flip the script and teach me a punishing lesson, you reap what you sow.”
While he began with a pill addiction, like so many, Hunter shifted to heroin because it was both cheaper and more accessible. His own downfall is inevitable:
“[H]eroin became the new love of my life. It was a total obsession for me. My habit became enormous overnight. Within a few weeks, I was sniffing twenty bags or two bundles a day. This continued for about three months until [his dealer] just up and disappeared. Now unable to get it, I began to panic. Withdrawal began creeping in and I was miserable.”
What ensues is a circle of detox, followed by relapse, methadone clinics, jail, homelessness … There is a harrowing observation that after 9/11, dopers thoughts were only how would they get their fix? And, of course, the question of how did he get here haunts him: He went from a million dollar drug business to being a junkie with nothing to his name. It is not until 2008 that Hunter is finally drug free and has his life on track.
In the beginning, Dineen writes with wonder at his often good luck … and later is accepting of his ultimate fate. In the end, he reaches both a sense of self and responsibility. His final thought is an important warning:
“So let this be a cautionary tale to anyone who is thinking about embarking on a life of crime or being involved with narcotics. There is no riding off into the sunset, no Hollywood endings when it comes to drug and crime. You will be lucky to escape with your freedom, and most importantly, your life!”
“Suburban Gangsters” by Michael P. Dineen is available online at Amazon.com or from its distributor AT www.dorrancepublishing.com.