Best Memoir (2012)

American Desperado, by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright

Carl Hiaasen — South Florida's reigning king of fiction that's almost as unbelievable as local headlines — once said of his novels' bad guys: "I always try to burden even the villains with some weird predilection they have to cope with. It helps make them memorable and gives them a human side." Former drug smuggler Jon Roberts, who achieved an outlaw's fame when he costarred in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, was as gleefully villainous as any literary character. He was a mob thug turned Vietnam War murderer — readily admitting to skinning Vietcong alive and killing village women and children — turned filthy rich and incredibly violent coke importer. He once eluded cops by kicking through the windows of two squad cars, while handcuffed, leaving a trail of hundred-dollar bills behind him. Hell, in 2009, he threatened the life of a reporter from this publication. But in his memoir, American Desperado, his co-author, accomplished war journalist Evan Wright, somehow dragged enough weird predilections out of Roberts to make the old, evil bastard sympathetic. At one point, Roberts, an unlikely animal lover, recalled his deep fondness for a glass room he constructed in his Delray Beach house. During wild South Florida electrical storms, he liked to lie there with his model wife, his 150-pound pet cougar named Cucha, and his killer dogs, and watch rain lash the glass. He had spent his teenage years as a bloodthirsty orphan after his mafioso dad was deported and his mother passed away. Roberts died in horrible, karmic fashion from the rapid spread of cancer a month after the memoir was published. But the sparely described image of him ensconced behind glass with his strange, makeshift family, marveling at the natural power of a storm, said something about the swaggering bad guy's perpetual loneliness. And, even more remarkably, about his vulnerability.


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