Hustle and Flow

Exploring America’s margins, journalist Evan Wright is a throwback—but not to Dr. Gonzo

Any Rolling Stone alum whose beat is this country’s fringes is bound to get compared sooner or later to his most celebrated forebear. Usually sooner, because reviewers are desperate people who know their readers aren’t too familiar with, say, The New Yorker’s Lillian Ross, a better analogue for Evan Wright. So don’t blame G.P. Putnam’s Sons too much for sticking the same dumb quote from Newsday that adorned the paperback edition of Wright’s best-selling Generation Kill—“His style owes more to Hunter S. Thompson than to any sort of political correctness”—on the back cover of his new collection, Hella Nation: Looking for Happy Meals in Kandahar, Rocking the Side Pipe, Wingnut’s War Against the GAP, and Other Adventures with the Totally Lost Tribes of America (352 pages, $25.95).

Despite peddling some puckish stories about his pharmaceutically challenged apprenticeship at Hustler in the mid-’90s, Wright’s introduction deprecates the more or less nonexistent similarity between his calm takes on American dementia and Thompson’s active contribution to it. Since there’s value in that-there counterculture connection, he’s careful to do so with a modesty that implies he’s hardly fit to tie the great man’s shoes: “One of the most astute political observers of his time and a grand American humorist in the tradition of Mark Twain, Thompson was also a prodigious reporter.”

Can I point out this is pretty much nonsense? Whatever he was, “a prodigious reporter” Thompson wasn’t. Among other things, no one would ever have called the full-on Dr. Gonzo a good listener, something Wright evidently is and then some. The things people are willing to tell him would make most priests and psychiatrists, not to mention cops, weep with envy. Except when Thompson was raiding his own skull for bulletins, if then, he often didn’t know what in hell he was talking about, something Wright always convinces you he does.

Oh yeah: Funnily enough, Wright is a prodigious reporter. His eye for detail and peeling-the-onion patience when it comes to describing how the world looks to his frequently addled subjects before he eases around to how they look to the world weren’t such common virtues even in Lillian Ross’s day. If you tuck Hella Nation on the shelf midway between Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, it’ll look right at home.

The oldest piece reprinted here is “Heil Hitler, America!” About a neo-Nazi conclave in Idaho, it graced Hustler’s notoriously graceless pages in 1997. The most recent is an astounding warts-and-buboes-and-all 2007 epic from Vanity Fair (guy’s come up in the world, hasn’t he?) about Hollywood-agent-turned-jingo-head-case Pat Dollard. But the bulk of the book collects the pieces that, so Wright tells us, got him dubbed Rolling Stone’s “unofficial Ambassador to the Underbelly” before the magazine packed him off to Iraq for what became Generation Kill. They range from in-depth profiles of puke-splattered L.A. skateboard king Jim Greco and a Battle of Seattle vet known as Wingnut to a couple of equally in-depth jobs of crime journalism, with “Portrait of a Con Artist”—starring Internet porn maven Seth Warshavsky, who bailed for Thailand one step ahead of his creditors in 2001—combining elements of both genres.

Crude title aside, the reportorial skill on display in “Heil Hitler, America!” turns more impressive yet when a later piece—“Scenes from My Life in Porn,” which could cure Casanova of priapism—fills us in that Wright’s demoralizing main gig at the time was churning out sordid slop for Hustler and Barely Legal under pseudonyms. Only once or twice does he make the mistake of thinking he’d better let readers know he thinks these Aryan Nations bozos are wicked—e.g., a mention of their “raving, misspelled hate literature” that would have benefited from letting that deadly “misspelled” stand alone.

Mostly Wright just lets them talk to appalling effect, made more eerie because, at ease in their temporary Aryan Brigadoon, they aren’t hostile—they’re sunny. He knows he doesn’t need to underline the stunted educations and crummy jobs their anecdotes are laying bare, and his unshowy, spare prose doesn’t call attention to its own effects either—above all, a superb image of young girls in “dresses with bonnets and aprons like Amish maidens, but accented with swastika jewelry.” That link between America’s most famously placid misfit community and one of its most baleful is breathtaking because it transcends editorializing: “lost tribes,” indeed.

“Wingnut’s Last Night on Earth,” in which Wright tags along with a twentysomething anarchy kid and his scruffy kindred spirits in the wake of the Seattle WTO protests, is even more delicately managed, not least because he can’t count on his readers to have a settled opinion going in. His own fluctuating mix of sympathy and misgivings is conveyed entirely—and brilliantly—by what he chooses to tell us when.

Early on, Wingnut comes off as fervent but far from unhinged. The tidbit that his hero’s the Unabomber (“The corporate-controlled media makes him look like a maniac”) is slipped in so artfully that it registers as a blip on the screen. But as the piece deepens, we can’t help noticing how wanton his acts of protest seem—not just futile but puerile. Only after Wingnut ends up arrested for arson does Wright divulge his real name, along with the news that at his trial he was alleged to have caused $43 million in property damage in the previous five years.

While it goes without saying that some pieces work better than others, Wright’s batting average is higher than most. I counted only one outright dud: “Dance with a Stranger,” about his trip through the demimonde of Los Angeles hostess clubs. Leaning too hard on an excess of quotes from sociologist Paul G. Cressy’s 1932 The Taxi-Dance Hall to prove there’s nothing new under the disco ball, our Sherpa in wolf’s clothing makes the same slender point about urban loneliness over and over. “Isn’t the bartering of money for cheap fantasy what L.A. is all about?” he wonders, proving that nothing’s new under Philip Marlowe’s moldy old desk lamp either. Please, can’t a sign be put up in editors’ offices nationwide—local ones included, since “Dance with a Stranger” came out in the L.A. Weekly—to remind them Los Angeles isn’t all about anything?

Two of Hella Nation’s standouts are all about murder. One is committed by hit men, the other by a dog, and the story behind both is—one guess—their masters. “Mad Dogs & Lawyers” unravels the creepy relationship between a neo-Nazi jailbird and the married Bay Area attorneys who adopted not only him but his canine doppelgänger, a scary pooch named Bane he had bought from the no less incredibly named Stygian Kennels and who lived up to that billing when he made headlines by mauling one of the couple’s neighbors to death. Full of sharp sidelights on real and figurative prisons, Wright’s reconstruction of events is a small masterpiece. It’s outdone only by “The Bad American,” a much more elaborate tale—told from multiple angles whose chronological gamesmanship never seems arbitrary—of a young Russian immigrant who wound up dead after running afoul of the high-flying, unscrupulous title character.

For Hollywoodites, the scabrous Pat Dollard profile will be the main event. Discounting “Scenes from My Life in Porn,” Wright isn’t much for obtruding himself into his stories, but here he’s got no choice. Not only did he and Dollard first meet in connection with Generation Kill’s movie sale, but the agent is one of those people who can draft all and sundry as bit players in narcissism’s opera. Wright doesn’t draw the line until Dollard needs someone with a clean mental health record to buy guns for him.

Making good use of his favorite structural ploy, Wright starts with the preposterous upshot—Dollard’s latter-day status in “the pro-wrestling world of opinion TV” as Leni Riefenstahl Lite—before heading back through the labyrinth to suss out how he got there. The short answer is that he was a delusional, charismatic blowhard in his William Morris incarnation, and he’s a delusional, charismatic blowhard in this one, the difference being that Ann Coulter now thinks the world—well, the USA—of him. If you’re looking for ironies, one is that this phenomenal saga of sex, drugs, and politics would be ideal movie fodder for Dollard’s best-known client, Steven Soderbergh. Another is that Dollard’s acquaintances never tire of comparing him to Hunter S. Thompson.

Illustration by Andrew Degraff