Evan Wright won himself a mass audience with Generation Kill (2004), which expanded on the Iraqi reportage he had done for Rolling Stone. The subsequent TV series made from the book has ensured that his name is identified with gonzo-flavored war reporting. Yet this Dispatches-on-the-Euphrates vibe does an injustice to the range of Wright’s work, which has more recently appeared in Vanity Fair and the Los Angeles Times. He has written about skateboarders and anarchists, skinheads and porn merchants—a disparate group united mainly by their outsider status. Notwithstanding its hyperventilating subtitle, 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 collects the best of these pieces. In a conversation with CJR’s James Marcus, the author splits hairs over how best to define what he calls “rejectionists,” and denies his debt to the late Hunter S. Thompson—sort of.
Let me begin with a question about the earliest piece here, “Heil Hitler, America,” which appeared in Hustler in 1997. As you note in your introduction, Max Frankel of The New York Times singled it out as a squalid fiction, not to mention a recruiting poster for neo-Nazi thuggery.
I should say that you’re a little late. I wrote to the Columbia Journalism Review back in 1997, after Max Frankel wrote this editorial saying that I had made the whole thing up. I demanded my day in court at CJR.
Did they write back?
No. That’s how insignificant I was.
How about the Aryan Nations crowd you profiled in the piece—did you get any fan mail from them?
No, I didn’t, which is more surprising. No reaction whatsoever.
And how about your other subjects in Hella Nation? How have they responded to your portraits of them?
The pieces are so different that the responses have been different as well. The military people—the guys in the 101st Airborne in Kandahar—really liked what I wrote. In fact, when I was in Baghdad in 2007, working on a different story, I was in this bad neighborhood, and this guy came running after me! He had been profiled in the 2002 piece, and he said, “Man, that was great, I never got to thank you.” That was one of the funniest responses.
The weirdest thing was that mad-dogs-and-lawyers story, which resulted in a death threat. It was taken very seriously by law enforcement in California: they gave me various warnings, and I met with the prosecutor in San Francisco. It was very strange.
You’ve often been compared to Hunter S. Thompson, a line of descent you dispute on the very first page of the book. You suggest that his brand of gonzo journalism is often “more about the reporter than the subject.” If that’s the case, who do you view as your predecessors, both in terms of style and subject?
That’s a hard question. A.J. Liebling—now, his style is a little different, but his subject matter was the largely the same. He wrote about underworld characters: dancers, boxers, and so forth.
Is that how you would characterize your own subjects?
Yes. It’s not always that they are underworld, but that they’re perceived that way. But you know, Hunter Thompson actually is one of my biggest influences. What I’ve always disliked, especially after they made the Johnny Depp movie, was the way he was turned into a character.
So you’re talking about his earlier work, where his own personality didn’t loom quite so large.
I’m talking about Hell’s Angels, which is just great immersion reporting, and even some of the later stuff. In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, he writes this crazy Hunter Thompson thing in the introduction, about how he had to carry all his guns to Washington to do his political reporting. But then you start reading the book, and it’s actually by this guy who’s obsessed with the inner game of politics and knows all the players.
Let me backtrack and say something else. In the publisher’s rush to market (which I thoroughly applaud), they tend to spin things: oh, he writes about subcultures. Or: the underworld. What I’m really interested in is people who are voiceless. And voiceless doesn’t necessarily mean somebody who’s powerless, cowering in the corner, afraid to speak. It’s people who we’ve seen again and again in televised media, and yet we have no idea what they actually think or say.
Would the WTO anarchists in “Wingnut’s Last Day on Earth” be one example of that?