The Washington Post
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 Americaby Evan Wright
Read Evan Wright's posts on the Penguin Blog.
The New York Times bestselling author of Generation Kill immerses himself in even more cultures on the edge.
Evan Wright's affinity for outsiders has inspired this deeply personal journey through what he calls "the lost tribes of America." A collection of previously published pieces,/b>/i>/i>/b>… See more details below
Read Evan Wright's posts on the Penguin Blog.
The New York Times bestselling author of Generation Kill immerses himself in even more cultures on the edge.
Evan Wright's affinity for outsiders has inspired this deeply personal journey through what he calls "the lost tribes of America." A collection of previously published pieces, Hella Nation delivers provocative accounts of sex workers in Porn Valley, a Hollywood über-agent-turned-war documentarian and hero of America's far right, runaway teens earning corporate dollars as skateboard pitchmen, radical anarchists plotting the overthrow of corporate America, and young American troops on the hunt for terrorists in the combat zones of the Middle East
The Washington Post
Rolling Stone writer Wright (Generation Kill), offers 12 tales of outsiders, people more or less living off the grid in mainstream America. He profiles, for example, a member of Delta Company in Kandahar in southeastern Afghanistan dueling with the Taliban; a fun-loving regular at a dance hall; a committed local anarchist engaging in street theater at a global trade conference; a pastor of the Aryan Nation preaching against the evils of blacks and Jews and other nonwhite "mud people"; and two HIV-infected former porn stars. As a former editor of Hustler magazine, Wright recognizes the magic in Seth Warshavsky, a con man with a mind full of schemes in the porn world of bartered desire. There is some top-drawer writing among weaker essays, but the total effect reflects a literary rebel who wants to break convention. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Table of Contents
NOT MUCH WAR, BUT PLENTY OF HELL
DANCE WITH A STRANGER
WINGNUT’S LAST DAY ON EARTH
HEIL HITLER, AMERICA!
THE BAD AMERICAN
MAD DOGS & LAWYERS
PORTRAIT OF A CON ARTIST
SCENES FROM MY LIFE IN PORN
PAT DOLLARD’S WAR ON HOLLYWOOD
ALSO BY EVAN WRIGHT
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
PUBLISHERS SINCE 1838
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Copyright © 2009 by Evan Wright
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada
Pages 341-342 constitute an extension of this copyright page.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
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 / Evan Wright. p. cm.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To the great American humorist,
cynic and realist Alan D. Wright, Esquire
There is almost no circumstance under which an American doesn’t like to be interviewed.
—A. J. Liebling
After the publication of my book Generation Kill, some critics called my work “gonzo,” because reporting from the midst of combat as I did struck them as an act of gonzo journalism. For Generation Kill and now Hella Nation, use of the term is a misnomer insofar as “gonzo” speaks of writing that is more about the reporter than the subject. With few exceptions, my intent has always been to focus on my subjects in all of their imperfect glory. Gonzo journalism was born and died with Hunter S. Thompson, and lives on only in his writing. But not even Thompson himself was entirely gonzo. 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. His Hell’s Angels stands as a classic of immersion journalism—in which Thompson’s adventures in gathering his material never diverted focus from his outlaw subjects—and was an early inspiration for my own reporting from inside American subcultures.
Portions of Hella Nation appeared in different form in Rolling Stone at a time when I served as the magazine’s “unofficial Ambassador to the Underbelly”—a title jokingly bestowed on me in an editorial published by Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Stone, in 2002. My primary subjects at Rolling Stone (and later at Vanity Fair) were people I found roaming the great American underworld, from runaway teens trying to make it as ecoterrorists, to Internet scamsters, to human growth hormone hustlers in Phoenix, to celebrity street skateboarders. The young combat troops I reported on in the Middle East represented a new kind of subculture, one that was often as misunderstood by civilians at home as it was by military leaders.
When my father read of the unofficial ambassadorship bestowed on me by Rolling Stone, he phoned to congratulate me on the promotion. “Underbelly is one step up from ambassador to the crotch,” he explained, referring to my previous job as an editor at Hustler magazine. I had started at Hustler in the mid-nineties as a triple-X-film reviewer and reporter assigned to cover the adult film industry. Like other hopeful college graduates in America, I had never had a strong ambition to wind up working in the porn industry. But when I found myself in it, assigned to interview porn starlets and write about the sketchy characters running the adult industry (such as my boss Larry Flynt), I drew on the work of New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling as inspiration.
While I did not delude myself that Hustler was equivalent to Liebling’s New Yorker, I liked to think that Liebling, who reveled in the Depression-era world of boxers, small-time swindlers, exotic dancers—“people getting by,” as he affectionately called them—would have appreciated the rich diversity of characters in Southern California’s Porn Valley. Liebling’s appreciation for the vernacular spoken by his streetwise subjects and his instinct for humor in even the grimmest of situations offered insight for how I might handle my subject matter. Describing his approach to writing, Liebling said, “The humor, as during a blitz, was rueful and concerned with the imminence of individual disaster.”
My career at Hustler began with an overdose of Xanax. I had been working a string of temp jobs in Los Angeles when a friend told me about an opening to be a copy editor at the magazine. I sent in a résumé, and a few days later I was called in for an interview. At the time I suffered from an imaginary form of social anxiety disorder. I had a fear of going into social situations that might induce a panic attack. This had never happened to me, but I had read about it happening to other people and developed a fear it might happen to me—a phobia of a phobia, as it were—which I medicated by popping copious amounts of Xanaxes before a stressful social interaction, such as a job interview. Without the crutch of a massive dose of tranquilizers, I feared that in the middle of an interview I might lose my mind and begin to sweat uncontrollably, speak in tongues and walk in aimless circles through the office of my prospective employer. On the afternoon of my job interview, I overshot the mark. I’d eaten a big lunch that day, and to compensate, I popped several extra pills before getting on the bus that would take me to Hustler’s offices in the Flynt Building on Wilshire Boulevard. Somewhere in Beverly Hills the bus broke down. I had to jog several blocks to make the interview. The exertion must have released a powerful wave of tranquilizer into my bloodstream. By the time a receptionist showed me into the executive editor’s office, I couldn’t feel my face.
Allan MacDonell, the executive editor, sat at a broad, uncluttered desk behind which panoramic windows offered a sweeping view of nothing—low, putty-colored apartment buildings and parking lots. In his late thirties, MacDonell wore thick black-framed glasses that gave him a passing resemblance to Elvis Costello. He had a raspy voice and mumbled like a character in Mean Streets. My difficulty in understanding him was compounded by the fact that the numbness from the tranquilizers was radiating from my spine in warm, liquid golden waves of heat. It was so intoxicatingly pleasant I had to concentrate not to slump face forward. Between MacDonell’s mumbling and the extreme effort it took to remain upright, I could only pick up snippets of what he was saying.
I pieced together that my résumé contained a typo, which disqualified me for the position of copy editor. I remember only disjointed pieces of the afternoon from that point on—shaking hands, walking across a floor that felt bouncy like a trampoline, trying to hold on to a No. 2 pencil as I filled out some papers. I came to the next morning in my apartment, wondering what had happened. I phoned Hustler’s offices and was put through to MacDonell. It was a confusing conversation—I’m sure for both of us—because MacDonell had offered me a job the day before, and I had accepted, and now I was on the phone with him trying to pretend like I knew that already.
It was only on the following Tuesday when I showed up for work and was led to a spacious private office—with a large TV and VHS player across from my desk and stacks of adult videotapes on the shelves—that I discovered I had been hired as Hustler’s entertainment editor, responsible for covering the adult industry. Later I would find out that my hiring had come about after the hasty departure of my predecessor, whose heroin problem had gotten so bad MacDonell had been forced to fire him. I was told that my predecessor’s heroin problem hadn’t been grounds for his termination. It was his other behavior, such as never leaving his office. One of my new coworkers explained, “The guy who had the job before you would come in every morning with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi, drink it all by lunch and spend the rest of the day peeing in the empty bottle, so he could hide in his office.” My colleague offered a tip: “Just make sure, no matter what you do in your office, you step out and walk around sometimes so MacDonell can see you. He gets freaked out if employees don’t seem to be able to walk around.”
If you could meet the minimum standards, the porn industry was a welcoming place to individuals like me who had grave personal problems. Though the business is a legal one, like the manufacture of assault weapons or the marketing of fortified malt liquor in poor neighborhoods, its existence is barely tolerated by the public. Given the social opprobrium under which the business functions, it’s tantamount to a black market enterprise. Like any black market, the adult industry is a place of rogues, borderline criminals, people with little to lose. If you are a screwup, an alcoholic, drug addict, nymphomaniac (of course) or freak, failure or deviant of just about any kind, it is a remarkably tolerant place.
My own decline had begun in high school. I had peaked around my junior year as a total nerd. A member of the debate team, I left school early whenever possible to attend lectures at the Council on Foreign Relations on the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks with the Soviet Union. In my free time I read Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy and Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. I wavered between dreams of attending Annapolis to become a military aviator and my volunteer work with Amnesty International writing letters to urge the release of “prisoners of conscience” held by foreign despots. I was torn by the traditional beliefs I had been raised with in the efficacy of militarism to promote Truth, Justice and the American Way and a growing personal conviction that the only proper course of action in a world of cruelty and horrors was absolute pacifism.
My crack-up began in earnest during a senior seminar on nineteenth-century European political thought when we came to the Russian nihilists, whose motto was “Smash everything that can be smashed.” According to my teacher, Bruce Carr, the slogan urged conceptual—not literal—action, to eradicate old, unworthy ideas by subjecting them to hammer blows of withering criticism and retaining only those that survive. The concept set the gears turning in my teenage brain. I resolved to live by subjecting every thought I held dear to extreme criticism, the more destructive the better.
In my career as a high school history student, the more I learned of the world and man’s inhumanity to man, the more I was afflicted by intense bouts of sadness, no matter how remote humankind’s injustices were in space and time, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the Defenestration of Prague. It was an intellectual-spiritual malady one of my teachers would identify as “weltschmerz”—a German expression for “world pain.” I would attempt to treat it for the next decade or so with puerile nihilism—as in “Nothing matters, nothing means anything anyway”—and bouts of intense drinking. In retrospect I am not sure whether the earliest condition I suffered from was weltschmerz or simple alcoholism.
On the Vassar College campus of the Reagan 1980s, where I did my undergraduate studies, Derrida, deconstructionism, political correctness and identity politics—of gender and sexual orientation since there were few students belonging to racial or ethnic minorities—were the rage. In most of the humanities departments, theory, as opposed to direct study of arts and letters, was paramount. Or perhaps this was my warped, incipient-alcoholic perception of things. In any case, the popular postmodern currents in the humanities departments did not withstand my nihilistic scrutiny. I dismissed the most important trends of my generation as bullshit.
I found refuge in a medieval and Renaissance studies program run by the history department. Students in the program—all three of us—were required to study ancient languages, in my case Latin and Old English. Languages appealed to me because acquiring them was based on the most elemental form of learning: memorization. And once you learned them, voices from the past seemed to speak directly, without being filtered by a professor quoting Kierkegaard and Foucault and Chuck D.
Historical inquiries within the medieval and Renaissance studies program were rooted in observable details—maps, architectural remnants, weapons and tools—and in testimony by witnesses as found in civic records, journals and other sorts of contemporaneous histories. Theory did have its place in the program. Several professors in the history department were under the sway of a theory of methodology referred to as the “Annales School,” named for the French journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, in which it had been developed in the 1930s. Annales historians rejected blind acceptance of traditional histories based on the words and deeds of great men, as well as Marxist theories of economic determinism, and advocated reexamining the past through detailed examination of data previously ignored by traditionalists—tax records, diaries, archaeological digs (especially of trash heaps, to see what people ate, the tools they used, the clothes they wore) and maps. Marc Bloch, a founding Annales historian, spent years hiking across France to better understand how the terrain influenced the evolution of agricultural technologies and in turn the social structure of villages. In a sense, Annales historians examined history the way police study a crime scene. Like police, they often arrived at conflicting, mutually contradictory narratives. But unlike deconstructionists or economic determinists, Annales historians were supremely uninterested in arriving at a unified theory of anything. They were perfectly at home in a Rashomon universe of diametrically opposed testimony and facts. “What matters,” a professor whom I admired used to say, “is the investigation, not the outcome.”
The Annales school also had a tragic element that appealed to my melodramatic sense of weltschmerz. Marc Bloch never completed his seminal historical work, The Historian’s Craft. Before finishing the last chapter he was executed by the Nazis for his role in the French resistance. Drinking heavily and rereading the unfinished final page of Bloch’s great book—something I did often during my senior year of college—seemed to confirm the utter futility of existence. By the time I graduated, I had no ambition to succeed at anything. To be a failure was a sort of philosophy to live by.
I would spend the better part of a decade failing to do much of anything except read, watch movies, travel a bit, smoke dope, drink, and of course work as little as possible. By the early nineties, when slackers were becoming celebrated in popular culture, I was, for once, in sync with the times. Slackers I saw on screen—in indie films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Kevin Smith’s Clerks—were amusing and harmless. My own slackitude seemed ugly and doomed. Most of all it was the drink, the blackouts, the getting beat up in bars, the walking down streets randomly punching windows, the running from cops, the stealing of cars to take them on pointless, drunken joyrides, the waking up in vacant lots or hospital emergency rooms not knowing how I had gotten there, or sometimes what my name was. The increasingly rare sober moments were times of unfocused, clammy terror, hence the massive consumption of tranquilizers.
The job at Hustler offered a steady paycheck, health benefits and a structured, nine-to-five existence that I hoped would tamp down my proclivity for increasingly reckless sprees. It seemed the logical end point for my nihilistic beliefs. Being confronted every day with segments of humanity locked in joyless, dead-eyed coupling in front of cameras was proof of the total lack of meaning of things, confirmation of my essential belief in the bankruptcy of the human experience, which was of course highly comforting. The job at Hustler was also the first time anyone had ever paid me to write. And getting paid to write, as most people know, is the ultimate and most coveted slacker profession. I lived in fear of losing my job.
In early 1996, Hustler assigned me to cover the Adult Video News Awards ceremony—the “Academy Awards of porn”—in Las Vegas. The ceremony took place in conjunction with a nearly week-long convention in which thousands of pornographers descended on the city, schmoozed, partied and sometimes brawled—all while filming impromptu adult movies in hotel suites. I could picture an almost infinite variety of disastrous scenarios I might find myself in if I embarked on a bender in the midst of the porn convention.
I traveled to Las Vegas with a colleague who wrote for another adult magazine. He was a committed heroin, diazepam, crack and meth addict who somehow had struck a chemical balance that enabled him to function. Years earlier he had been an aspiring playwright, doctoral candidate and instructor at a prestigious university. His career had ended after a week-long meth binge in which he’d pulled a loaded gun on a fellow member of his English department with whom he’d been arguing about Faulkner. He was someone I felt comfortable with because he was well-read and at least partially insane enough for me to tell him anything.
When we checked into our rooms at the Frontier Hotel, I pulled him aside and told him that if we ended up at a social gathering where cocktails were being served, he was to make sure I drank no more than six. I confessed to him that any number greater than that might lead to catastrophe. “No matter what I say, no matter what I do,” I told him, “get me out of whatever bar or party I am in. If you have to,” I told him, “punch me in the face.”
He agreed to help but could barely conceal his contempt for my lack of self-control. He’d been slamming heroin, smoking crack and meth for years, and except for his three-week stay in a mental hospital after the Faulkner episode, he had never missed a day of work. Staring at me through his dark black sunglasses—worn at all times of day or night to hide his pinpoint pupils—he asked, “You ever think you might have a problem?”
I managed to stay out of trouble in Vegas. But fearing some other incident that might lead to the abrupt termination of my job, I began trying to clean up. When my own efforts failed, I started to attend a 12-step program. Though the program was based—it seemed to me—on a magical faith in a make-believe “Higher Power,” after I had strung together a few weeks of uninterrupted sobriety through my participation in it, the empiricist in me had to concede that it worked.
Waking up clearheaded every morning was like washing up after a shipwreck, nude, badly scraped up, on a foreign shore. Driving to work each day in my fourteen-year-old Mazda GLC—paint peeling, missing its front bumper, and its rear window smashed by thieves who’d broken in to steal a stack of Hustler “Beaver Hunt” amateur photo submissions I’d carelessly left in the backseat—I began to wonder if there were greater challenges beyond the horizons of the adult industry.
My career as a mainstream journalist owes its start to the 1973 Miller v. California obscenity case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a work, such as a magazine, might be considered obscene only if “taken as a whole” it “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” The result of this ruling was that porn magazines like Hustler had a policy of publishing one article each month that aspired to be of serious value. My first non- adult industry article would be published by Larry Flynt as a form of anti-obscenity case conviction insurance.
I had fewer than sixty days sober in the summer of 1996 when I arrived in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to write a feature about the Aryan Nations white supremacist group based in a walled compound outside the town. Weeks earlier I had met photographer Nathaniel Welch on the set of Jasmin St. Claire’s World’s Biggest Gang Bang II, which he was covering as a sort of freak show for the now defunct alternative weekly Los Angeles Reader. Welch was interested in photographing American underworld subjects and had proposed that we collaborate on an Aryan Nations story that I would write for Hustler. Larry Flynt had a personal interest in publishing an exposé of white supremacists, since he believed the 1978 shooting that left him paralyzed had been carried out by a white supremacist enraged by an interracial photo spread published in Hustler. The day before I left to meet the Aryan Nations members, Flynt had called me into his office, bizarrely decorated with Tiffany lamps, Ertés and what looked to be knock-off Baroque oil paintings. Seated across from me in his gold wheelchair, flanked by his personal bodyguard rumored to be armed at all times with a MAC-10 submachine gun, Flynt gazed at me with his head cocked to the side. “When you meet the top man there,” he said, “make sure you ask him why they shot me.”
When Welch and I drove our rental car up to the security booth outside the Aryan Nations headquarters, manned by guards in SS uniforms, we had no plan in place to gain access. We had agreed that we would not pretend to sympathize with the supremacists or use any other ruses to gain their trust, with the exception that we would tell them we were freelancers (and not that we were on assignment for Hustler). In our first approach the guards told us to leave the property. But over the next few days, low-key persistence paid off. We met one member of the group in town who was eager to talk, which led to contacts with more of them, and then an invitation to spend time inside their compound. It was a pattern that would repeat itself, with almost mathematical predictability, with just about every subculture I would later cover.
The fact that Welch and I had told our neo-Nazi subjects that we didn’t sympathize or agree with them worked to the story’s advantage. It seemed to make them all the more eager to explain themselves. Much as I found their half-baked ideologies repugnant, I was fascinated by their extreme alienation. In my own jangly state of raw-nerved sobriety, their alienation was something I could connect with. I used that connection—a genuine though extremely limited form of empathy I was able to feel for my subjects—to elicit unexpected revelations from them about the intense fears underpinning their hatred and lunatic beliefs. Or maybe it was simpler than that. As A. J. Liebling pointed out, Americans—“pleased by attention, covetous of being singled out”—will always talk to a reporter.
What didn’t make sense during the time that I spent among the neo-Nazis was the absence of the many phobias that had long plagued me, and which I had feared might rear their heads in the threatening environment of the Aryan Nations compound. It seemed that investigation—the part of historical studies that had been so absorbing to me as an undergraduate—was even more gratifying when undertaken with contemporary subjects, so much so it seemed to erase all the ambient anxieties of routine existence. Even better, you could interview contemporary subjects without having to translate from a dead language.
I also learned during that time with the neo-Nazis that the closer I came to things that from afar had frightened or disturbed me, the less power they held. Later, I would hear New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman refer to reporting from tense situations as the thrill of “mainlining history.”
I had given up powerful intoxicants about the time I embarked on a reporting career, and it became obvious that harrowing circumstances in the field helped fill a void created by the absence of personal dramas brought on by drink. (I was the sort of drinker for whom calamity was almost as desirable and stimulating as intoxication itself.) When I arrived in Afghanistan in 2002 on assignment for Rolling Stone (accompanied again by photographer Nathaniel Welch), the first morning I woke up in a combat zone felt easier, more carefree than the start of a typical day in Los Angeles after a night—or several—of hard, blackout drinking.
When I sat down to write the neo-Nazi feature for Hustler magazine I avoided making overt moral commentary on my subjects, the same as I would in a history paper about a subculture in the remote past. I would let events and sources speak for themselves, which I believed would be the most powerful means of indicting the movement. But when I’d finished writing the piece I worried it was too unfiltered. Perhaps I should have stated the reporter’s opinion somewhere that neo-Nazis are bad? I submitted the unpublished manuscript to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for its view on the piece. Erin Zelle, an ADL researcher who specialized in white supremacist groups, recommended the story be published without any changes. Zelle believed the piece effectively skewered the Aryan Nations through its members’ own words. She warned me of the possibility of reprisals.
The only attack came from The New York Times, when Max Frankel, the paper’s former executive editor and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, published an opinion piece on Larry Flynt. In it he reviewed Hustler magazine, singling out my article on the Aryan Nations, “Heil Hitler, America!” as the “vilest prose masquerading as reportage.” He called it a “palpable fiction . . . slyly designed to stimulate skinhead brutalities.”
On a certain level Frankel’s criticism of the magazine as a source of some of the vilest prose in America was not totally off base. The porn industry, tolerant as it was of personal eccentricities like drug addiction and certain types of criminality, was also cruel and exploitative to the core. The meanness of the industry was reflected in Hustler. In the pages of the magazine readers were referred to as “jack-offs,” adult performers as “sluts” and “bitches.” The rating system for films was based on a scale whose highest honor was a “Fully Erect” and whose lowest was a “Totally Limp.” Gallows humor prevailed among the staff. During my stay with the Aryan Nations I fell out of contact with my boss, MacDonell, for several days. He feared the worst. But when I showed up alive and in one piece, he expressed disappointment. He would be unable to print the headline for my obituary that he had planned, based on the film-rating scale: “Evan Wright: Totally Dead.”
Mainstream publications had scant interest in assigning work to a Hustler editor, but after more than a year of my pressing Glenn Kenny at Premiere, he agreed to hire me to write an article on the 1998 Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas. Shortly before I was supposed to leave for the show, Kenny called to inform me that the article had been reassigned to David Foster Wallace.
Kenny was certain I would understand and even expressed the hope that I would share his excitement given Wallace’s staggering contributions to American letters, for which he’d recently been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. I had no idea who Kenny was talking about. Having been drunk through the first half of the nineties, I’d missed key cultural events. In the past eighteen months the situation had scarcely improved. I had no time for books, movies or TV. The only cultural input I absorbed came from watching the dozens of porn films I reviewed each week, or from listening to people’s testimonials—referred to as “drunkalogues”—at the 12-step meetings I attended in my free hours. It was the cultural equivalent of living in a sensory deprivation tank, suspended in a saline broth of pornography and self-help affirmations.
Kenny arranged for me to meet with Wallace in Las Vegas and serve as his guide. When Wallace published his feature, “Neither Adult, nor Entertainment,” in Premiere (“Big Red Son” in the essay collection Consider the Lobster), I appeared in it under the pseudonym he bestowed, “Harold Hecuba.” I spent several days trying unsuccessfully to decipher the meaning of his reference to Hecuba, torturing myself over my inability to decode the meaning of the great author’s reference. Finally I called Wallace. He was stunned that I didn’t get who Harold Hecuba was. “He’s, you know, the Phil Silvers character who guest stars on Gilligan’s Island,” Wallace explained. “I thought you would get it. You don’t feel bad about it?”
“Why should I?”
“You shouldn’t,” Wallace said. “Hecuba’s not stuck on the island like everybody else. He gets off of it. Makes it back to the mainland, I think, that is, if I have my Gilligan’s Island references right.”
I would make it off of porn island within a year. On my last day at Hustler , MacDonell entered my office and closed the door. He regarded me from behind his thick black-framed Elvis Costello glasses. For the briefest instant his face seemed to quiver with emotion. “I just wanted to say, by leaving here today you have completely failed me,” he said. “I believe you will fail every employer you have in the future.” It was the standard, warm Hustler farewell.
Though I left the island, I’m not sure I ever made it to the mainland.
The sense of disconnectedness I carried as a result of both my personal pathologies and my years of employment in an outcast industry seemed to be an asset in my reporting for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Whether my subjects were the tree-dwelling anarchists of “Wingnut’s Last Day on Earth,” the San Francisco attorneys who threw away their ties to their community by forming a bizarre family with a prison inmate in “Mad Dogs & Lawyers,” or the Hollywood über-agent who fled his lucrative career to make pro-war films in Iraq in “Pat Dollard’s War on Hollywood,” most shared a similar sense of being exiles from the mainstream of American culture. Even the young troops I profiled in “Not Much War, but Plenty of Hell” had a profound awareness of their separateness—of values, of culture—from their peers at home.
The editors whom I worked with often described my subjects not just as outsiders, but as people who were “disenfranchised.” The assumption seemed to be that most of my subjects would have chosen to participate in the mainstream if they hadn’t been somehow shut out of it. While I did write about some, such as young Russian immigrant Konstantin Simberg in “The Bad American,” who were desperate to reach the mainland of the American dream, most of the people I encountered in writing the essays in Hella Nation were rejectionists. They gravitated to subcultures because they didn’t want to participate in the dominant culture. Many of the troops I would meet serving in the front lines of America’s wars in the Middle East disagreed with the common stereotype that they had joined the military because they had been forced to by socioeconomic circumstances. They insisted they had joined as much for opportunity as to escape the inanities, or as some put it, the “self-centeredness” of civilian life.
Americans are repeatedly told that aside from simplistic red state-blue state political divisions, we are a nation of conformists, cynically shaped and manipulated by advertisers and marketing specialists. In the early nineties the idea briefly took hold that from amid the burgeoning new worlds of Internet message boards, grunge music, indie films, independent coffee shops and independent bookshops—then at their zenith—an alternate culture was arising. A defining moment of the era occurred in 1992 when Nirvana posed on the cover of Rolling Stone with Kurt Cobain flaunting his shirt printed with the phrase “Corporate Rock Magazines Still Suck.” The next defining moment occurred in 1993 when Nirvana self-censored the artwork and lyrics on its album cover to ensure distribution by Wal-Mart.
The power of America’s corporate marketeers to co-opt cultural dissent was driven home to me after the publication of “Wingnut’s Last Day on Earth”—which was based on my travels with anarchists as they waged war on the Gap by defacing its stores. The article featured an iconic photograph—shot by Mark Seliger, who also photographed the Kurt Cobain anti-corporate rock cover of Rolling Stone—of Wingnut, an anarchist in a black hoodie jacket. The black hoodie had become an anarchist symbol—much in the news then—and a banner of anticorporate sentiment. Within months of the photo’s publication, the storefronts of Gaps across America prominently displayed the corporation’s new line of black hoodies.
If there was a single strain of thought uniting my diverse subjects it was suspicion of the Matrix-like powers of a hostile monolith—the mainstream media, or corporations, or the government—to control people’s minds by shaping reality. Yet among the groups and individuals profiled in Hella Nation, none would ever agree on what defines the nation, or the forces they believe control it. For Pat Dollard, the nation was a place held captive by the liberal media, for the anarchists it was the corporate capitalist oppressors, for the white supremacists it was “ZOG,” the Zionist Occupation Government. Internet huckster Seth Warshavsky, whom I profiled in “Portrait of a Con Artist,” had a relentlessly optimistic view of America as a vast happy-land of potential suckers. For many of the troops I encountered, America remained a beacon of democracy, for which they were proud to serve, sometimes despite grave questions about the wars they were fighting. One of the teenage anarchists I traveled with down the West Coast defined the nation this way each time we stopped at a highway rest station: “Wow, it’s so hella America.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Oh, God,” she explained. “Like hella real. Hella harsh.”
NOT MUCH WAR, BUT PLENTY OF HELL
To the soldiers of the Fifth Platoon Delta Company living at Kandahar Airfield, deep in the former Taliban stronghold of southeastern Afghanistan, dawn breaks each morning with a horrible stench. Their tent is located at the southernmost end of the airfield, not far from the “shit lagoon”—the canal where all the excrement from the camp’s five thousand- plus inhabitants is dumped every day. Temperatures in Kandahar soar to more than 125 degrees, and the first hot winds of the morning bear an overwhelming smell of raw sewage, spiced with the odor of disinfectant from the latrines outside the tent, not to mention occasional gusts of diesel fuel blowing off the line of helicopters on the nearby runway. Sitting on the edge of his cot, twenty-year-old Private Joshua Farrar, a former surfer from South Florida, shakes a Newport out of a dust-covered pack, surveys his fellow soldiers getting up to face another day in Afghanistan and concludes, “This all sucks.”
The Fifth Platoon Delta are air-assault infantry attached to the 3-187th Battalion, America’s main combat force in southeastern Afghanistan. Their job is to fly into battle on helicopters, rappel down and blow the crap out of tanks, fortifications and the enemy. But in Afghanistan the soldiers have been thrust into an ill-defined role. They mount round-the-clock combat recon patrols through former Taliban villages in the Kandahar desert. But the shooting has stopped for the most part, and now the soldiers are called on to enforce a shaky peace while serving as America’s ambassadors of goodwill in what remains a lethal land.
As they prepare for their patrol, Farrar and a couple of the other gunners stand on top of two Humvees to mount machine guns in the turrets. Lieutenant Donate D’Angelo, Jr., a twenty-six-year-old from Ramsey, New Jersey, leans on some sandbags outside, studying a plastic-encased patrol map.
The first thing you notice about D’Angelo, the platoon leader of Five Delta, is his physical power. He is about five-feet-eleven and weighs 195 pounds, with much of that weight carried in his shoulders and massive biceps. A week ago, he set a regimental record in Kandahar for his weight class by bench-pressing 325 pounds. D’Angelo played soccer at West Point, boxed for three years and completed Army Ranger school, during which he survived a lightning strike that killed the man next to him.
“Today,” he says, “we will drive through some minefields and drink tea with village elders.” He looks up with a sort of grin or snarl. It’s tough to tell. D’Angelo is the son of Italian immigrants. “I’m like the black sheep of the family for being in the Army,” he says. “My brother’s twenty-three. He’s a bond trader in Manhattan, making a hundred and twenty thousand a year, and I’m making thirty-five thousand living in a tent in Afghanistan with fourteen other guys.”
“Step aside, sir!” a soldier shouts. “Dust devil coming.” From across the parking lot, a brown cyclone whips up from behind a row of porta-johns; D’Angelo steps back five paces while the funnel slips by. “You get used to the dust here after a while,” he says. Most afternoons, forty-mile-an-hour winds kick up dust storms that blow into the airfield like a thick fog, reducing visibility to a few yards.
“Do people at home still care about the job we’re doing over here?” D’Angelo asks. He speaks softly, but emphasizes every syllable, as if laboring to make himself absolutely clear, just in case you happen to be a dumb fuck. “Are they still patriotic and all that, or have they forgotten about us?”
D’Angelo spits a thick stream of brown juice and adds, “You know, I took it kind of personally when the Towers fell. That was my backyard. To say I wanted to put my life on the line for America is too abstract. I came to Afghanistan to protect my mother, my sister and my little brother.”
THERE ARE ABOUT FOUR THOUSAND SOLDIERS based at Kandahar Airfield, as well as an additional one thousand coalition soldiers, most of them Canadian. The three-square-mile encampment at the base, seized from Taliban control last year, is the one piece of land in southeastern Afghanistan the United States controls absolutely. The barbed-wire perimeter is heavily fortified with machine-gun nests, bunkers and guard towers. Of all the personnel stationed here, less than a thousand are actual infantry soldiers. The rest serve various support roles—truck drivers, computer technicians, inventory accountants—and this is the only Afghan soil they will ever set foot on.
In the six months since the Americans took over, Kandahar Airfield has gone from a mine-strewn ruin to a makeshift thriving city. Life inside the wire has its own peculiar rhythms. Americans at the camp inhabit their own time zone—the Pentagon’s worldwide standard, known as Zulu Time, which here is four and a half hours behind local time, meaning that dawn breaks at about 0030, or just past midnight.
At this hour, the bombs usually start going off as part of the work done by the ordnance-removal teams, and you begin to see early-morning fitness nuts jogging, toting grenade launchers and pistols—everyone is required to carry their weapons at all times. By 0400 Zulu, the local Afghan workers show up, including a team of former mercenaries supplied by the local war-lord, who tend the old rose garden outside the terminal while armed guards keep a watchful eye, lest one decides to hide a bomb in the bushes. All day long, huge C-130 and C-17 transport planes disgorge steel shipping containers and mountains of supplies. (It takes two daily C-130 flights alone to keep the PX stocked with items like chips and salsa, Eminem CDs and thousands of cans of warm soda.) At two in the afternoon, when the sun starts to set in Zulu Time, officers hack golf balls at a primitive driving range built on the threshold of an old minefield. At about 1500 Zulu, soldiers begin to crowd the “morale, welfare, recreation” (MWR) tents to phone home and watch the shows The West Wing and Fear Factor on big-screen TVs. Then, at about 1800 Zulu, they hit their tents, where they are rocked to sleep by the thunder of mortar barrages from night maneuvers on the nearby practice range.
Despite efforts to offer the comforts of home, life at the camp is mighty unpleasant. The food is awful—a combination of premanufactured T-rations and MREs (meals ready to eat). Temperatures inside the tents hit 130 degrees in the day, the porta-johns are foul and beastly hot, dust sifts into clothes and sleeping bags, and showers are available for only limited use. Add to that constant bouts of dysentery and the ever-present threat of rocket attacks—none successful so far—and you can understand why the soldiers have bitterly nicknamed the post “Ass-Crack-istan.”
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