by S. Landers
As I Type These Words...
As I type these words, it is fast approaching sundown in New York, New York; we have slumped into the curious high-rise twilight that exists half-way between 'nautical' and 'civil' twilight, when the sun has sunk down not quite over the rim of the earth but certainly over the glass, steel, concrete ramparts of Fortress Manhattan; still shining down on some obscure section of New Jersey, perhaps, but only visible here in the form of a smoky orange glow serving as back light for the buildings along the Hudson.
I should be out there enjoying it. Instead I'm barricaded here, lashed to the laptop like agoraphobic Odysseus, wax in ears to prevent the siren-song of Everything Happening Out There from luring me away from this, my appointed task. It isn't as though I'm running up against a deadline – I'm way out past it on the ragged edge of disappointment. I'm almost beyond The Fear – this is some other hazy limbo, unknowable if you haven't been there, but known and feared by all, a realm that stinks of flop sweat, disgrace, defeat.
Only two choices left to me:
a) total and unequivocal surrender; logical end result of a lifetime of Thoughtless Decisions and Bad Choices
b) strap myself in and hurl myself headlong and face first into the Work.
Experience indicates that there's always time for a nervous collapse but taking a gamble on the toxic pressure cooker of deadlines, expectations, and consequences – as far as I'm concerned, that kind of thing never goes out of style. Various well-wishers and on-lookers and good Christians of all kinds have assured me that one day it'll be a dollar too short and a bridge too far and I will rupture like a boiler explosion on a 19th century steamboat – grand and glorious in my catastrophic end. That said: we all turn to dust sooner rather than later, and who cares to end up like expired milk, lumpy, chunky, with the vinegar stink of wasted potential?
Who cares, indeed? The task, simple enough. Write on the Gonzo style. Deceptively simple.
Get down into some serious research; write on Hunter S. Thompson as Existentialist, the roots of Fear and Loathing in Kirkegaard's fear and trembling and follow the thread from there through dusty stacks and old piles of books and card catalogs and scholarly journals. Lash together a fistful of references, draw a wobbly line through the guts of Western Civilization, connect Thompson to the tradition of Old Testament prophetic denounciation, canonize him as a secular saint, and then cash the check.
Except! First off, that was a good idea three weeks ago when I had the time to get the research in. Worse than that, it feels like writing an article about fucking by watching sex ed videos from 1980s America. Not only does something get lost in the translation and I am no closer to experiencing the thing itself, it'll give me entirely the wrong idea.
So, maybe write on the Gonzo style in the Gonzo style – just take some Dangerous Drugs and report for duty, go on the march, cigarette holder gripped between clenched teeth, a sneer and a curse and foam at my lips to confront this ragged work-a-day world and its various pigfuckers and greedheads and when it's all come to a screeching crashing halt, write it all up as hard-boiled, erudite jeremiad against some handy shibboleth in a reckless style of High Righteous Mania.
The only thing that speaks counter to that approach is that it goes against the handful of scruples I can still claim as my own.
All that ersatz garbage belongs to the Cult of Gonzo which sprouted up like so many poisonous mushrooms while The Good Doctor Thompson was still with us; the relentless media churn that confused a journalist for his shadow and alter ego, the kind of wit-blind waterheads of the professional class who would've taken A Modest Proposal at face value and allotted equal time for its presentation in the name of balance; the grinding mechanisms of the culture industry that recast an iconoclastic and perceptive writer into some kind of Saturday Morning Cartoon version of himself as lunatic anarchist philosopher outlaw, and gave host to a whole cottage industry for a little while there – “authorized” cigarette-holders and a legion of Fear and Loathing Halloween costumes worn by kids who couldn't care less about getting down to the hard realities lying at the center of Western Civilization, out essentially and singularly to get themselves wrecked in High and Fashionable Style. Wretched debris now moldering in the clearance section of a dollar store – Doctor Raoul Duke dolls with accessories and kung-fu action grip. I couldn't think of anything less gonzo than voluntarily embarking on such a grim and repugnant charade.
There's more honorable ways of making a dishonest dollar than that, like collecting cans to bring to the redemption center, fleecing tourists for donations down at Penn Station, or maybe just running for public office. Transforming a human being into an industry ought to be a crime dealt with by the old Roman judgment for parricide: 'punishment of the sack'. The degenerate found responsible would be sewn into a leather sack with an assortment of poisonous snakes and then tossed into the Hudson river to be washed out into the boundless ocean, the swine.
The nature of Gonzo is nothing about these accidents, these external signs. The true essence of Gonzo is not trashing hotel rooms, consuming heroic quantities of narcotics and embarking on frenzied revels of marginally criminal quality. Gonzo in a phrase: Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern's campaign manager, on Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail '72 - “the least factual, most accurate account.”
The Good Doctor knew the myth of Objective Journalism was just that – a myth. Or as he put it, “a pompous contradiction of terms”. I'm sure it's possible that here and there, honest scribblers sit down at desks and compile tidy, indisputably factual accounts of farm reports and lottery results and high school football games – the kind of people who do the work, cash the check, and move on to what they actually love, like fly-fishing, betting on horses or mending old wicker chairs.
For the any author who feels they have a stake in what they're writing about, it can't help but be personal. Rules are a trap and norms are a straightjacket, or so the line of thought goes; anything worth saying is going to be out of bounds, and consequently, you'll have to go way out of bounds to say anything worth the ink. Right off of the field entirely and out past The Edge, maybe somewhere out in the parking lot with the rest of the misfits and malcontents left out of the Big Game. When the Going gets Weird, the Weird turn Pro.
Today, the news has to always already be on everyone's twitter feed before the Professionals know they can report on it. The tail not only wags the dog, the poor old mutt is covered in ticks and hopelessly broken and the unspoken fact of the matter is that it is only a matter of time before we've got to put the poor old boy down despite how many good times we've had together. You've been a good old wagon, Objective Journalism, but you done broke down.
Gonzo dares to point a finger at something we all know to be true: though it might seem to be on the level, the whole thing is rigged on the behalf of the Powers and Principalities, and as for the rest of us, we're right up the proverbial creek “until we can put our acts together: Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely”. Well, it's looking dark, folks, and the hour is later than you think.
Gonzo is not an intoxication. Gonzo is an anti-anaesthetic that works against numbness, passivity and the cop-out in all its forms. It is an all-you-dare-eat buffet of brutal realities.
Writing is a tool to put the truth down on the page, to show the world as it is – or at least as you see it being. And then, if you use the right words, it can be a tool – a weapon, even – to point at the task in front of you. A way forward, a way out, a banner, a horse to mount and charge at a windmill or two until the day the Universe says 'no more of that', and grinds you back down into the dust from which you came.
Beyond the used car salesmen, the Nixons, the gibbering lunatics and the spineless hypocrites and mealymouthed pious frauds, the hands at the tiller that have steadily steered the ship of this Once Great Nation into the choppy waters of mediocrity and barbarity, until the horrifying becomes the banal and the monstrous becomes familiar, beyond all that, there's all of us in it, too – the vicious, consuming masses who get free from their dead-end slog of a job and numb themselves by surrendering eight or more hours of their life each week - voluntarily! enthusiastically! - so they can watch total strangers – people like them - get humiliated on television – and envy the poor bastards – everybody who lets the rotten bastards get away with it, ground down and brutalized, who knows better but stands around and applauds at fashion week for the Emperor's stunning new ensemble, who just want to watch a little television and get laid and be left alone, for Chrissakes. In an age where one lives perpetually in fear of being stamped to death like a rat in a shoebox – if not from some random action by a wild-eyed religious or political fanatic, then at the hands of a hometown quasi-militarized police state. Bring the wrong backpack to the right checkpoint and it's Goodnight Gracie - “could you come with us sir-or-madam to this small windowless room and leave all your hopes and dreams behind you please-and-thank-you.”
In a world like this, who could blame someone for needing to get twisted just to swallow the filthy business of daily living? Who, indeed?