Picks and Pans Review: Undercover

updated 02/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Donald Goddard

The subject of this absorbing, intense biography, Michael Levine, spent 23 years of his life buying and selling drugs. His business took him from cash-for-the-stash New York ghettos to the multimillion-dollar white-powder capitals of Asia and South America. He handled each transaction with a dealer's swagger, bags and pockets weighed down with money, eyes filled with suspicion, manner cool and distant. The drug deals would take months, sometimes years, to set up. The payoffs-loads of cash or a gun to the head—would be decided in moments. Levine proved over those 23 years that he was one of the best dealers in operation. Street hustlers swore by him, international buyers trusted his instincts and valued his drug judgment. It wasn't until Levine flashed his badge that the dealers even had a hint that they had been working with an undercover agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Levine's strength was his ability to mold himself into different characters. At various times in his career (he retired in May 1988 because of a back injury sustained during a crack raid), Levine posed as a priest, a mobster, a Puerto Rican dealer (he speaks fluent Spanish) and a Colombian drug merchant. A martial arts master, he bagged more than 3,000 criminals during his years on the street and confiscated uncounted millions in pure and "danced on" (diluted) drugs. He withstood the psychological pressures of the job as well as the temptation to befriend the men he was sworn to put away. Neither of these burdens was difficult for Levine since he was driven by more than the desire to be a good cop: His only brother, David, killed himself in 1977 after losing a battle with heroin. The book moves like a high-speed car chase, each scene whizzing by, bodies and booty left by the wayside. Author Goddard, who also wrote Joey, a biography of Mafia chieftain Joey Gallo, knows the territory Levine roams well enough to make the dialogue and settings seem as near and as frightening as a corner crack buy. The sections on Levine's childhood (he grew up a Jewish kid in a tire-iron-tough Hispanic neighborhood in the Bronx) help explain the determined man he became. The breakdown of Levine's personal life (DEA agents refer to themselves as the Alimony Boys) reflects the round-the-clock demands of buys, busts and court appearances. Through it all, anger at the results of drug use sustains Levine, and the belief that he can, despite all the obstacles, wipe out the dealers, fuels his convictions. Add to that mix the fact that Levine loved the action, loved the feel of the edge, of being one second, one squeeze of a trigger away from death. (Even now, when Levine spends most of his time lecturing, he never goes anywhere without a weapon.) Undercover brings the reader close to Levine's edge, offering a convincing and brutal glimpse into the ever-expanding drug world. It is a world in which 25 million Americans, in one form or another, participate every day. It is a world of very few heroes. Michael Levine is one of them. (Times Books, $19.95)

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