No, Ratsnakes is not a book about reptiles. It’s a book by Vincent A. Cefalu about spending several decades as an undercover agent for the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). Men and women who volunteer for what is called the “gritty” life of an undercover ATF agent are called “Ratsnakes”.
Cefalu talks about his life and career in detail. His is not a shoot ’em up story, though a personal firearm and a wire were typically tools of the trade. It’s a book about day-to-day looking and acting like a person who would want to purchase guns, drugs or explosives and remembering the lie you have told about your identity. It also may mean working the words “Joey Buttafucco” into a conversation with the bad guys.
Sometimes, the author says, his own physical appearance was necessarily so unlike the “real” him, he embarrassed his family and frightened the neighbors.
Yes, the book is also funny. I particularly liked Cefalu’s story about his first failed experience in trying to barge through a locked door.
The book is serious when it talks about agency mistakes (Fast & Furious), lifelong friendships, doing the right thing, budgets, transfers and occasional suicides.
Office politics and rivalries among the ATF, the FBI and local law enforcement are also part of the action. Bosses and many of their shortcomings are prominent as well, especially when the bosses have no real experience working undercover. Cefalu admitted, on the other hand, he “might” have been rather tough to supervise.
The book begins with a description of some of the agents whose stories are depicted in the book and about the author’s background (a troubled kid given the choice of a year in jail or enlisting in the Marines). I found the early going a bit slow, but kept reading. Once I understood the pace of the work being described (getting to know the bad guys requires patience) I went along. Fortunately Cefalu tells most stories in short bursts, so if one story seems to end with a whimper, the next tale might be humorous or have a serious element of danger.
Lots of f-words and a good deal of drinking are part of the job of an undercover agent and I guess that’s understandable. One can’t really become friends with members of a drug-running biker gang using the king’s English and drinking iced tea.
I guess the main thing the book taught me was simply that men and women do have dangerous jobs that they love. Many times Cefalu said he loved his job despite its shortcomings. Excitement, to him, was a turn-on.
Every day an agent may have a different identity. Travel to new locations happens often. Roles change, too. One day, an agent is in charge of an operation; the next day, the agent is part of a back-up crew that when given the signal will magically appear to make an arrest. Maybe an agent speaks English; maybe English and Spanish; maybe an agent rides a motorcycle and sits for a tattoo. Maybe an agent sees things that aren’t as they were taught.
Agents make make agreements with bad guys to buy firearms or drugs, and calls that the product is ready may come at any time, even when the agent is enjoying family time. Maybe those calls at key times mean that relationships and marriages don’t survive. (Author Cefalu has been married three times.)
I was amused to read that most sellers of drugs or firearms are late to appointments. Can you imagine, as an undercover agent, you are nervous, and the bad guy…keeps you and your back-up team waiting?
In the end, I am glad I read Rattsnakes. I learned a lot, though not what the explosive Ratsnakes title led me to expect. Slow and steady wins the day.