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Review: Undercover by Keith Bulfin

Book-writing as therapy is nothing new. Countless examples exist of life stories so extraordinary -- or in this case, traumatic -- that rather than looking to entertain or win respect, the author just wants to externalise the experience for the sake of mental tranquillity.

Written under the guise of "a novel of a life", the plainly titled Undercover is such an example of one man getting bad memories off his chest in a readable fashion.

First-timer Keith Bulfin fits the above description snugly. Although he has said that this first-person account of his time working for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is "90 per cent" truth (names of people and places have been changed to protect those involved), Undercover is essentially a memoir. But into his extraordinary story he adds a smattering of novelistic devices to ensure Joe Reader finds page-turning entertainment in anecdotes that made the author literally wet himself in fear for his very life. Already, during the gruesomely tense prologue, it's a discomforting premise for the reader.

Putting it mildly, Bulfin has had a rough ride. Shy, average and bullied persistently, he endured a dull childhood in conservative small-town New Zealand during the late Forties and early Fifties. He tells us all about his stuffy Presbyterian education, shortcomings and minor triumphs, and even goes so far as to outline his fumbling desire to pop his cherry. It seems hardly necessary at this stage but for Bulfin it's clearly part of the process.

Marriage and qualification as an auditor and mortgage broker is flown through in the lead up to the crux of the story. Living in Australia and working as an investment banker in the Eighties, Bulfin was involved in the setting-up of a casino with doubtful associates. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud but, bizarrely for a white-collar crook, ended up doing a three-year term in Victoria's notorious supermax prison Port Phillip. Living among the continent's most unsavoury miscreants, he was beaten regularly and even stabbed on one occasion. These chapters of his treatment and daily claustrophobic dread are told in a disconcertingly calm and unexaggerated tone that smacks of deep emotional scarring.

There, he struck up a friendship with the Mexican drug cartel banker Daniel Gomez. It was this link with Gomez that saw him allegedly being approached to work for the DEA on his release (the author even speculates that his initial meeting with Gomez may have been orchestrated from up on high). Pressed to accept its job offer and devoid of any prospects back in the real world, Bulfin claims he was positioned in Mexico as a banker for drug cartels, moving money around for them under the continued supervision of the DEA. Alongside this, he provides a clear breakdown of the machinations of the multi-billion dollar cocaine industry in the Americas.

Having endured so much in jail, his new "work environment" now offered more immediate, life-threatening stresses. It reads like a protracted anxiety attack, one where he is regularly advised by his sadistic clients not to "f*** with them", while knowing that's exactly what he's doing.

When a hotel-room deal goes spectacularly wrong, the final third of the book sees Bulfin not only sweating to evade the vengeful cartels but also avoid being done-over by the increasingly tricky DEA. He has worked out its true colours, and realises it will fling him aside if he is no longer of use to the US's "war on drugs". We are sucked wholly into this two-pronged fear, a day-and-night commentary of suppressing panic to allow for clear thinking, so that two very single-minded organisations don't out-manoeuvre him.

His safety and that of his partner and her children rests on Bulfin's ability to outwit everyone, which he does, or so he says. It's not zero-to-hero stuff -- his nerves are not those of your typical Murder Inc hero. This skinny, awkward victim of school bullying is now watching people being dismembered with chainsaws in a warehouse. With normal life restored and living back in the Antipodes, the mild-mannered Kiwi attests to being haunted by these ghosts to this day. If it is the truth -- and many are indeed bound to question that 90 per cent figure -- then Undercover is chilling in a very special way.

Written in a sprightly three months, it has that confessional, vomited-up air about it; Bulfin is too rudimentary in his style to be spoofing, your gut tells you. The only writerly flourishes he allows himself are a couple of Dan Brown-isms (brisk chapters, cliff-hanging final sentences) to provide that page-turner factor. True or not, the story itself does all the work here, which is probably why film rights have already been acquired.

To do its source novel justice, however, such a project would have to depict its author as frail and panic-stricken as you or I would be in such grisly circumstances.

Sunday Indo Living