Fresh out of the American correctional system, having served five years after being framed in a botched-up cocaine affair, Yacub Ali Hassan Shah decides that it is time for change. No more hanging out with losers. Not another night behind bars. He’s moving to the next level. How? By brokering the finest heroin deal in the history of the Pakistani-US drug trade.
Brilliant plan in theory, but one practical hitch is that Yacub left Islamabad almost 25 years ago and has only seen the poppy fields of Peshawar blooming on picturesque panorama images in National Geographic magazine. But what else can he do, his wife has divorced him, his relatives have disowned him, no home, no money, no sex, and when he finally beds a lady in Abbottabad, he doesn’t get it up.
Despite being a low-IQ aggressive alcoholic lowlife with not a single worthwhile gene in his body (at least the author doesn’t give us any cause to feel even a smidgen of sympathy for this antihero), Yacub enters the glamorous Islamabad expat scene where imported booze flows like the Indus in monsoon. Within minutes he has antagonised the head of the Pakistani intelligence service who uses his office to pursue a personal vendetta. And very soon Yacub finds himself in the clutches of a wily triple-crossing Pashto conman and minor spy named Khan Sahib.
It would seem that Yacub’s latent talent is that trouble seeks him out without him having to be particularly proactive about it. Reads like the sloppy script of a Lollywood soap or, as the text in a moment of bizarre self-awareness refers to itself after one particularly silly scene, ‘a really bad Indian movie’?
Actually not. What it reads like is a travelogue thinly disguised as a crime novel, which is a cop-out on the part of Nate Rabe who ought to have selected one genre and stuck to that.
The only relevant intertextual reference I pick up being The Guns of Navarone, it is worth pointing out that the author is no Alistair MacLean (who set his magnificent war thriller South by Java Head in Asia). Rabe just seems to have crammed memories of a long ago trip to Pakistan into a slapdash plot.
The narrative is ostensibly set sometime in c.2010, but curiously the Pakistan depicted appears to be from c.1995 before CDs or mp3s, when people listened to cassettes, and telephonic communications took place via landlines—only one upper-class dude owns a ‘pocket phone’ which barely functions. The 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan looms large in the background, while more immediate events (such as the aftermath of 9/11) barely find a mention. Come on!
As is often the case in soapy farces, the plot hinges on implausible coincidences and everybody turns out to be interlinked in the most unlikely manner. Furthermore, the perspective randomly shifts from that of Yacub’s to that of sundry other characters—breaking the illusion that we’re following Yacub and in the process ruining whatever drama the situation might have held. These minor characters are cartoonish caricatures and not a single one, except perhaps the love interest Afroz, seem remotely credible.
Neither does the protagonist hold together if scrutinised. Yacub hates Pakistan and all it stands for, wants to leave the country asap, and is supposedly there only to clinch the deal of a lifetime. Yet the way he bumbles about his narcotics procurement makes it obvious to anybody (except himself) that he’s going to end up spending the rest of his years in the country’s dingiest prison or in a shallow grave on the outskirts of Peshawar.
But as a final verdict I must say that The Shah of Chicago might have been enjoyable had it been the screenplay of a comic musical, so let’s hope that a Pakistani film producer picks up the book and makes something fun out of the mess.