This is another excellent, fast-moving novel from Don Winslow. The protagonist is a lifelong loser named Tim Kearney who is doing a stint in San Quentin when he gets into a beef with a Hells Angel named Stinkdog. Knowing that Stinkdog will be looking to kill him, Kearney, a former Marine, makes a preemptive strike, cutting Stinkdog's throat with a sharpened license plate. Kearney knows, however, that his reprieve will be short-lived. The murder makes him a three-time loser. He can expect to spend the rest of his life as a guest of the state of California, but that's of little consequence. Kearney knows that it will only be a matter of days or weeks until the Hells Angels take their revenge and kill him for murdering one of their own.
Just in the nick of time, though, Kearney gets the luckiest break of his life when a DEA agent named Tad Gruza offers to get him out of jail permanently in return for doing the DEA a small favor. Gruza explains that a notorious Mexican drug dealer named Don Huertero is holding a DEA agent captive. Huertero has offered to exchange the agent for a drug dealer named Bobby Z that the feds are holding. Sadly, though, unbeknownst to anyone outside of the DEA, Bobby Z has died of a heart attack while in custody and so it looks like the exchange is off.
It turns out, however, that Tim Kearney is the spitting image of Bobby Z and Gruza proposes that Kearney impersonate Bobby Z for the purpose of the exchange. Once the swap has been made, Gruza promises to extricate Kearney and let him run away and start his life anew. It's a scary idea, but a lot more palatable than sitting around in prison waiting for the Hells Angels to execute him and so Kearney agrees.
Inevitably, of course, as the exchange is to be made, the grand plan goes to hell in a handbasket. Kearney winds up in the hands of Huertero's people who treat him like royalty while awaiting the boss's arrival at a luxurious compound belonging to one of his henchmen. Kearney discovers, though, that Huertero actually intends to torture and kill him because the real Bobby Z apparently stole a large sum of money from him.
Kearny now finds himself on the run from the drug dealers, the cops and, of course the Hells Angels who still want his hide as well. His chances of survival look pretty grim, but he intends to give it his best shot and wreak as much havoc on his enemies as he can before he succumbs.
This is a very entertaining novel and Kearney, for all is faults, is a tremendously appealing protagonist. Winslow tells the story in staccato bursts of narrative and dialog that seem perfectly suited to the subject and that keep you turning the pages. Winslow has gone on to even bigger and much better things since this book first appeared twenty-three years ago, but fans of the author who don't know this book will certainly want to search it out.