Gonzo Girl: an unconventional book review

By Aramie Louisville Vas

It is late 2009, chilly at nights and warm in the days, when I am called down the road via text message to the ancient, white board shed behind my friend Jack’s mobile home in Kentucky. At least, I think he is a friend. Recent advances have begun to make me question intent. But I have come to the farm to recover, not for romance. I have no permanent address except a tent in front of his cousin’s small farmhouse. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, and still on prescription speed, I am rarely able to sleep. Port wine provides a few hours rest until the medicine rips through my brain in time-release fashion, startling me awake. Or maybe that was the breakdown. I never can be sure.

“Come over.” The words light up the tent. “Here. Please”. It reads as disconnected, and frightened.

I crawl out of the tent, swig some wine to warm up, and quickly walk the starlit lane down to Jack’s. The rural night is gorgeous, if cool; crisp air, twinkling stars, surreal feeling of excitement that this farm always possesses. When I arrive, Jack is face down on the shed’s dirt floor. The whiskey bottle has been pushed over but has not spilled the final few swigs. A cast-iron stove in the center of the makeshift shack stands open, fire licks beginning to consume strands of the loose straw which have tumbled from precarious stacks in the corner. Jesus. I stamp out the smoldering embers and shut the iron door on the fire.

Thank god he texted me before passing out. Turning around to focus, I see that Jack is wearing his camouflage jacket – the one he kept after the dishonorable discharge. He only puts it on when the memories are bad. Even though he is flat on the ground, the jacket has been ripped open somehow and pushed to the side so I can read his last name: Finn. I don’t have a lot of craziness or actual experience to help me understand what was happening to myself or to those around me out at the farm . I don’t even have a good fictional story to fall back on for context; Cheryl Della Pietra has not yet written Gonzo Girl.

Suddenly, Jack staggers to his feet, stumbles, and pisses loudly in a corner. He zips up and turns oddly – rather quickly – glaring at me, eyes reddened. Very slowly, I back away and then lay down on the dirt, just like he had been, not understanding or even caring why. Acting on instinct. He growls and ambles past me, across the yard, and back into his trailer. Later I will understand how this foreboding scene will be the best drunken scenario of his I will ever walk into. And yet for some reason I feel sure he didn’t mean to frighten, or abandon me, in the dirt. We’re so isolated out here, it’s as if regular rules and logic do not apply. Readers inevitably relate to the written word via their own experiences. This vivid memory of mine is one of a few which flood to the surface as Alley Russo, Della Pietra’s lightly fictionalized self, describes one of the pivotal scenes in Gonzo Girl.

In the novel, Della Pietra uses her character of Alley to relate her account of one summer as Hunter S. Thompson’s assistant. When Alley meets Walker Reade (Thompson), she is one year out of college, and has yet to establish either the lifestyle or the literary connections she needs to make her name and eventually get her own work published. Reade is Alley’s literary hero. We sense while her youth may have included fantasies of movie stars, never in her wildest dreams did she entertain the notion of actually working for a modern-day Pulitzer-prize-winning icon. Her working-class Italian background simply didn’t provide the access, much less the encouragement, for such ventures.

Alley’s first hours at Walker’s are punctuated by tense moments and uncomfortable verbal hazing. In front of his entire crowd (which includes notable celebrities), Reade calls Alley to task, denouncing her as a “moron”. But thankfully, Alley is resourceful and far from imbecilic. To the reader, she comes off merely as inexperienced; a rather bookish Ivy-Leaguer who may not be up to speed in Walter Reade’s fiery, hallucinogenic realm.

Alley has a bartending background and is ambivalent about hard drugs. It’s an ambivalence she is immediately called to face – how many assistants are handed a tray of cocaine on their first day and expected to partake? It is Alley’s bold and assertive qualities which assure her place in this wild literary fantasyland. Being a “good sport”– whether by ingesting Reade’s drugs, mixing Reade’s drinks, or catering to his wild wardrobe fantasies — is paramount. It gives her the standing to insist that her boss turn out at least one page each night on his current book. A feat which proves harder than expected from the literary genius and usually at inconvenient times: 2 am. 4 am. Dawn.

For most of this novel, I am in an eclectic haze of odd choices, strange trips and extreme excitement. It is a remarkable cocktail of feeling. There are times I am genuinely worried for these characters – the mark of a story well-told. There are also soul-warming scenes which register as both unexpected and downright wholesome. They provide contrast to the relentless dynamic activity which is Alley’s new world.  As readers, we are never entirely convinced of Reade’s claim that plenty of people would be glad to trade places with Alley in the role as his assistant.

To reveal more of Alley’s story here would be to rob the reader of a chance to delve completely into her world. Alley is called upon to create a persona when arriving at Reade’s and to witness everything that she puts up with, and indulges in is voyeuristic fun. Alley is not perfect, though to her credit she does not buy her own bullshit and lose her true self. She grows in character throughout the novel and ultimately makes important decisions in situations where there is simply no precedent.

One additional point of interest: we historically do not hear a lot about the women of Gonzo. A story entirely from the female perspective is a breath of fresh air. Della Pietra tells her character’s story in a solid, straightforward manner. She’s not overwrought and doesn’t romanticize. It would be of interest to know how Della Pietra relates today to the world of Gonzo and to its new generation post-Hunter.

I emerged from this novel with a new understanding of Hunter S. Thompson, via Walker Reade. I understood how Hunter S. Thompson, the person, became Hunter S. Thompson, the legend. Thanks to Gonzo Girl, I was able to witness his process. It even shed some light on my own confusing memories. Walter Reade created his own world, one where absolutely anything can happen. Alley makes a solid companion as we witness the allure, fear, and magic of sharing his world. Regular life isn’t like this. It never gives the sense something greater is out there, or that boundaries can be challenged with spectacular results.

Gonzo Girl takes us into a movie-like realm; an intense, surreal place where even the wild can register as dull. Alley’s world becomes a place where limits are tested, complexities nurtured, and anger rages to frightening degrees. Conventional thinking would paint our heroes as perfect, but sometimes the best thing we can do for a legacy is to humanize them. It is those flaws which draw us closer to our heroes.