Alley Russo is a recent college grad desperately trying to make it in the grueling world of New York publishing, but like so many who have come before her, she has no connections and has settled for an unpaid magazine internship while slinging drinks on Bleecker Street just to make ends meet. That’s when she hears the infamous Walker Reade is looking for an assistant to replace the eight others who have recently quit. Hungry for a chance to get her manuscript onto the desk of an experienced editor, Alley jumps at the opportunity to help Reade finish his latest novel.
After surviving an absurd three-day “trial period” involving a .44 magnum, purple-pyramid acid, violent verbal outbursts, brushes with fame and the law, a bevy of peacocks, and a whole lot of cocaine, Alley is invited to stay at the compound where Reade works. For months Alley attempts to coax the novel out of Walker page-by-page, all while battling his endless procrastination, vampiric schedule, Herculean substance abuse, mounting debt, and casual gunplay. But as the job begins to take a toll on her psyche, Alley realizes she’s alone in the Colorado Rockies at the mercy of a drug-addicted literary icon who may never produce another novel—and her fate may already be sealed.
“A margarita-fueled, miniskirt-clad cautionary tale of lost literary innocence” (Vogue), Gonzo Girl is a loving fictional portrait of a larger-than-life literary icon.
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Everybody is laughing except for me. I’m scanning the faces, trying to remember names, as they listen to Walker Reade recite from his novel in progress. To my right sits Devaney Peltier—that’s how she introduced herself to me, first and last name, like she’s kind of a big deal. She’s Walker’s full-time girlfriend, and she’s braying like a donkey, the act made more absurd by the rings of white powder encircling her nostrils like two tiny powdered doughnuts. Claudia Reynolds, the aging assistant, is curled up across from me, gazing at Walker in adoration, laughing the hardest. To my left sits Rene Wang—or enfant terrible artist Rene Wang, as he’s been described, without fail, in the New York City media since the day in 1983 when he famously set dozens of roosters loose in Times Square in a performance-art piece he called Koch’s Cocks Can. He’s chuckling lightly, his lips pursed, eyebrows up—his “hysterical” look, I will later learn—as he taps a long ash from his Davidoff cigarette into the mermaid-shaped tray on the table before him. I don’t have to work to recall the names of the other two people here. They’re undeniably famous. Crushed up beside Rene, almost sitting in his lap, is former vice-presidential candidate George Stains, his head thrown back, lips glossed with scotch, a small drop of blood dried at the bottom of one nostril. And next to Claudia is Larry Lucas, former teenage heartthrob, now Oscar-winning actor, doubled over like a man passing a kidney stone. Everyone is in hysterics. The only problem is, I’m not sure what they’re laughing at.
Devaney passes a large tray of cocaine to me—if it were flour, it would be enough to bake a small cake—and I smile and nod, as if she were handing me a plate full of mini-quiche. I have, to this point in my life, done exactly two lines of coke, with an ex–college boyfriend. He was filthy rich, and coke is what the filthy-rich college boys did when it was time to do drugs. I did those lines to try to fit in with his crowd—the same conundrum I’m weighing right now. To stall, I daintily perch the tray on my knee and listen politely. A notebook sits on the table in front of me. I brought it here to Colorado from New York City. It’s a reporter’s notebook, the kind I sometimes use for my own writing. I think it will be good for taking notes. I think it will show I am serious about wanting this job.
“That is so . . . fucking . . . funny, Walker,” says Larry, as I try to keep my face from flushing. Larry Lucas, it’s worth noting, played the leading man in several of the teen comedies of my adolescence and, suffice to say, played a leading role in more than a few of my teenage NC-17 fantasies. Under other, less overwhelming circumstances, I might be breathless about the fact that I can reach out and touch him.
“Y’all’re’funny, Walker, baby,” says Devaney, threatening to turn an entire sentence into a contraction.
When, after several more seconds of collective howling, my gaze drifts back to Claudia, I notice something: her eyes are open wide, unblinking, pleading. I can be a little dense in moments like these—too caught up in processing my surroundings—but I sense that she might be signaling me to do something. She’s smiling at me wide and crazy, like some kind of insane puppet. Then it occurs to me a second too late.
I’m supposed to be laughing, too.
“Hey, new girl.” My head snaps toward Walker, and I reach for my notebook, still balancing the enormous tray I’ve yet to partake from.
Rene, sensing opportunity, reaches for the coke. “Let me help you out with that, honey,” he says, his face entirely too close to mine. He snorts two quick lines and passes the tray to George, barely looking at him. The room is eerily quiet as I scan the faces once more. We’re in Walker’s living-room-cum-kitchen, the six of us arranged on his perfectly circular couch like numbers on a leather clockface. A round coffee table is at the center of the couch, and it holds the group’s detritus: George’s scotch glass and bottle of Dewar’s, Rene’s pack of Davidoffs, Claudia’s Dunhill blues, Devaney’s Newports, Larry’s Heineken, an enormous unsmoked joint, the aforementioned mermaid ashtray, a matching dolphin ashtray, my highball of Wild Turkey, Claudia’s glass of red wine, Rene’s Metaxa sidecar, which I helped him mix in an effort at chumminess, and Devaney’s vodka and cranberry. The tray of coke never really settles on the table. It just keeps getting passed around like it’s crowd-surfing at a Hole concert.
The only way to get on and off the couch is by climbing over the back. The only person not on the couch is Walker, who is perched behind us on a barstool tucked into a long counter. There’s little doubt about the message the seating arrangement sends: he’s the captain on this ship of fools.
“Hello? Is she alive?”
“Yes, Walker, sorry,” I say.
“What are you sorry about?”
I look around the room for another cue. Claudia is now focused on rolling a piece of lint between her thumb and forefinger.
“Go easy on her, Walker. She’s just getting the lay of the land,” Larry says.
Walker ignores Larry completely and fixes his aviator sunglasses on me. “Speak, for Christ’s sake!”
My heart begins pounding so hard I can feel it in my ears. The strangers here probably wouldn’t offer me more than mildly detached concern under normal circumstances. But now that everyone is coked up and drunk, I am little more than a buzzkill. I knew this outburst was coming one way or another. I knew from the books, the articles, the interviews. I have done my homework. Walker Reade does not suffer fools, and no one—not presidents, CEOs, law enforcement—gets a pass. I also know from said research that caving is worse. I square my shoulders to him and try to remain calm. “I was just listening, Walker. If I’m going to be your assistant, I need to know the story.”
Walker stares at me now from over his sunglasses. His eyes are a pale steel blue. “That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, too.”
“But I was enjoying it. Very much.” Walker worries his Zippo around in his hand. I can make out the skull and crossbones on the front of it every other turn. He grabs a Dunhill red from the pack in front of him; the room is so quiet that the schk of the lighter visibly startles Rene, who appears to run at two speeds: aggressively engaged or disconcertingly spaced-out.
“Then crack a smile, dumbhead.”
George clears his throat and passes the tray of coke to Claudia, who immediately passes it to Larry. Everyone is quiet, waiting to see what’s going to happen next, including me.
“I’m not dumb,” I stammer back, sounding far less convincing than I had hoped.
“Oh, that’s right,” Walker says. “Alessandra here went to an Ivy League school.” Devaney shifts uncomfortably on the couch. I can actually hear her teeth grinding. “It says so right here, on her thin résumé.”
Walker pulls a piece of paper from a folder on the counter in front of him, and I visibly recoil. I’m a year out of college. The last thing I want is a staged reading of my résumé in front of this crowd.
“I thought it was great,” I say.
“Which part?” He blows a cloud of smoke directly in front of him, seemingly unaware that it wafts directly onto Devaney’s head.
In truth I cannot recall a single coherent passage from what has just been read to me, and I briefly wonder what superman at Burch Press is tasked with making this book readable. “All of it, Walker. It’s really funny.”
“All right. What does it remind you of? Which of my works does it remind you of?” He takes off his Tilley hat and sunglasses and downs the rest of his Chivas and water. Without his signature armor—aviators and hat—he’s suddenly transformed from iconic writer/drug-addled playboy to unexpectedly sexy middle-school math teacher. He’s only in his early fifties; I didn’t expect him to be almost completely bald.
I can feel the clock ticking. What does it remind me of? I’ve read all of Walker’s books many times over, except the last two—the penultimate one a collection of political essays regurgitated from various magazines, and the most recent one so poorly reviewed that I couldn’t justify allocating even a fraction of my meager financial resources toward it. The previous five were so fluid and tight that nothing about what he’s just read reminds me of any of them.
I glance back at Claudia. She’s trying—and failing—to subtly mouth something to me. I look to Larry, who simply scrunches up his face and runs his hand through his thick, dark hair, winking, a gesture that I assume is intended to convey that this drill is somehow par for the course. Larry passes the tray of coke to Walker, trying to distract him.
“Here you go, big guy. Let’s have some fun. When does the game start?” The crowd is ostensibly here for an NBA play-off game.
“Half an hour,” Walker says shortly, passing the tray to Devaney while still staring at me. Rene lights up the joint, choking mightily on the first drag.
“Am I in a time warp here? Is time standing still for anyone else? I asked a goddamn question. What does it remind you of?”
“The second half of The Wake?” I say halfheartedly, referring to Walker’s fourth novel.
Walker actually ponders this for a moment—surprised, I think, that I’ve answered him. After a long pause, he says, in overly dramatic fashion, “Why, oh why, can’t I find someone with half a brain in her head to fucking help me? It’s not like I’m trying to find a neurosurgeon with a pretty face. . . . You would think I was looking for someone to take notes in Mandarin . . . or separate water into its hydrogen and oxygen atoms. But I don’t need any of that, do I?” Although this seems a rhetorical question, several people are, in fact, shaking their heads. “I just need someone who knows my books and has working index fingers to press a few buttons on my fax machine. Why on earth is this so hard . . . ?” He trails off before barking, “Try again!”
“I’m sorry, Walker. I don’t know.”
“What in the fuck do you mean you don’t know?”
“It’s very . . . unique.” My mouth goes dry.
Rene cringes when I say the word. He passes the joint George’s way.
“Well, looks like I have another moron on my hands. Where does Hans find these people?”
“Excuse me?” I say.
George pours himself another three fingers of scotch and takes the joint from Rene. It’s jarring to watch George consume drugs like a cracked-out nickel whore. I mean, the man was once the state of Ohio and a heartbeat away from running the free world.
“Have you even read anything I’ve ever written, missy? You and your stupid notebook.”
“Of course I have.” Not only have I read all of Walker’s early work, I have studied it extensively. You don’t come of age in the 1980s as an aspiring writer without at least a passing familiarity with the oeuvre of Walker Reade. There had been a time, not long ago, when Walker Reade was not just a writer—Walker Reade was a Writer Who Mattered. Regardless, I sense that this is perhaps the wrong moment to tell him Liar’s Dice is what made me want to write, or that his radical social commentary altered my worldview. I tuck the notebook behind my back and try to casually hold my drink. Every move I make now feels conspicuous.
“You hate it,” says Walker.
“If you’re going to be out here, you have to tell me the truth. That’s what you’re getting paid to do!”
I briefly consider reminding him that I’m not getting paid anything until he officially hires me. This is my three-day trial period. Even if I survive this, I won’t get paid until he delivers some real pages. That is what I’ve been told the deal is.
“Walker, go easy. It’s her first day,” Claudia says.
“Walker, baby, let’s go do something fun,” says Devaney, popping up from the couch like a character in a musical. She passes the tray of coke to me.
Walker ignores her, goes into the other room, and emerges with his seven books, every one a hardcover. He stacks them on the counter. Biker . . . bam! Liar’s Dice . . . bam! Ship of Fools . . . bam! The Wake . . . bam! Crossroad . . . bam! Rabbit Hole . . . bam! Traffic . . . bam!
“To the cabin,” he demands, pointing my way out the door. “And don’t come back over here till you’ve read these—no, memorized these. . . . And are you going to do that fucking line or what?” I stare down at the tray of coke I’ve been holding entirely too long for this crowd. I’ve been a bartender for three years. I’m a drinks girl, not a drugs girl. I’m horribly ambivalent about the tray in front of me. Too ambivalent, I think, for this place. I pass the tray to Rene and attempt to scuttle over the back of the couch, thinking I’ve just fucked this whole thing up in less than an hour. My shot. I grab the books, feeling hot down my neck, as I hold my head high—as if my literary hero hasn’t just called me an idiot—and retire to my quarters.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Gonzo Girl includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cheryl Della Pietra. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Alley, a recent college graduate, is forced to succumb to bartending on Bleecker Street and working as an unpaid magazine intern while waiting for her big break in the grueling world of New York City publishing. Fortunately for her, Alley lands the job of assistant to notorious author Walker Reade, hoping that this will be her chance to get her own manuscript reviewed by an experienced editor.
While living with Walker at his compound in the Colorado Rockies, Alley quickly learns that this job is unlike any other. Attempting to encourage Walker to write at least one page a day, Alley becomes fully immersed in Walker’s manic lifestyle. From endless lines of cocaine to casual gunplay to rage-filled outbursts, Alley could be in over her head. But as she begins to sense that Walker’s book may never get written, she takes things into her own hands—blindly sealing her own fate in the process.
Based on the experiences of author Cheryl Della Pietra’s time as an assistant for the infamous writer of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Girl delves deep into the chaotic, raucous, and unfiltered life of a literary icon.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Gonzo Girl opens with a tray of cocaine being passed among elite individuals, including a former vice-presidential candidate and an Academy Award–winning actor, while at a party in Walker Reade’s home. Thus begins Alley’s trial period as Walker’s assistant. In what ways does this scene set up the tone of the novel? What would you do if you were Alley?
2. Claudia offers Alley rules of advice in order to survive as Walker’s assistant, including “be ready” (p. 15). What does she mean? What does Alley need to “be ready” for? How do Claudia’s rules portray Walker?
3. Describe a typical day in the life of Walker Reade. Is it how you would expect a revered writer to behave?
4. Explore the topic of sexism in this novel. Walker consistently calls the women in his life “idiots,” denouncing their intelligence, clothing, and general way of being at any given opportunity. And then there’s Alley’s family, who are unsupportive of her career aspirations. Her father even says to her, “Door’s always open. When you come back” (p. 59), implying that she will undoubtedly fail. What do the sexist overtones reveal about these male characters? Does this type of behavior and way of thinking continue to exist today?
5. Walker continually dismisses Alley and her desire to be a writer. Is Alley naive to think that this job will help her garner literary success?
6. After spending several weeks as Walker’s assistant, Alley embraces a new philosophy for herself. “I would treat my time out here like AA, but in reverse. Instead of adopting a ‘one day at a time’ approach for not abusing substances, I was going to take that approach for abusing them” (pp. 75–76). Is this Alley’s way of convincing herself that it’s acceptable to participate in Walker’s debauchery? Is she just making excuses so that she doesn’t quit?
7. Unbeknownst to Walker, Alley has been rewriting the pages of his new book and submitting them to Walker’s editor, Lionel. Alley doesn’t even have any remorse for doing so. Instead, she says, “It has, in fact, been extremely rewarding to take the skeleton of his story and hang fresh meat on those bones” (p. 89). Do you think Alley is ruining her career before it even starts, or is this a strategic move?
8. Claudia has been Walker’s assistant for years and seems to be his only loyal confidante. Alley thinks that “Claudia’s job description would fill a phone book,” yet Claudia doesn’t get paid (p. 95). What makes her stay with Walker? Why do you think she cares so much about him?
9. In Chapter 10, Alley retreats to Walker’s back office to make a phone call, only to discover photos of Walker receiving his Pulitzer and even pictures of his ex-wife and children lining the walls. This is the first and only mention in the novel of Walker having a family. When studying the photos, Alley notices that “There’s no thinly veiled rage, no look of disdain. Or maybe it’s because he’s keeping good company in these pictures. There are no Devaneys, Alleys, or Claudias for him to slum with. He looks like his true self. Or perhaps what I imagined that to be” (p. 108). Albeit brief, why does the author bother to include this scene? What does this reveal about Walker’s former life and his current dysfunctional lifestyle?
10. How would you describe Devaney’s role in Walker’s life? Do you think Walker and Devaney are in love? How would you define their relationship?
11. Claudia thinks sobriety would kill Walker, while Alley thinks he believes it would “render him moot” (p. 182). Whom do you agree with? Do you think Walker’s substance abuse fosters his creativity? Does his writing excuse his excessive behavior?
12. Did you find Walker and Alley’s sexual encounter surprising? Why does Claudia say “Everybody at some point, at some time, falls in love with Walker” (p. 193)?
13. Despite Walker’s verbal outbursts, unwanted sexual advances, and violent rages, Alley never quits. She consistently compromises her integrity to remain Walker’s assistant. Why is she so loyal? Is she that desperate for relevance or success? Is there a difference?
14. Alley struggles with her feelings for Larry. Do you think their union is genuine or simply convenient?
15. Does Walker redeem himself at the end of the story? Do you forgive him for his faults?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The title of this book is a nod to “gonzo” journalism, a style of writing that was popularized by Hunter S. Thompson. Pair your reading of Gonzo Girl with one of Hunter S. Thompson’s popular books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Hell’s Angels. You can also try Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance, by Jay Cowan, to learn more about his eccentric life. Discuss how Hunter S. Thompson compares to Walker Reade. Do you think Walker could have written Hunter’s books?
2. Alley isn’t the only assistant who’s had it rough! Watch The Devil Wears Prada (2006) or episodes from Ugly Betty and Mad Men to see how other assistants handled the harrowing demands of their employers.
3. Take a bartending cue from Alley! For your next book club meeting, mix up some delicious drinks. Look up your favorite cocktail recipe online or try some literature-inspired drinks from Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, by Tim Federle. Give your book club an extra kick!
A Conversation with Cheryl Della Pietra
After you graduated from college, you lived with Hunter S. Thompson in Woody Creek, Colorado, for several months as his assistant. Discuss your relationship with Hunter S. Thompson. How did you become his assistant? How does Alley’s experience working for Walker Reade compare to yours?
Hunter had put the word out to Rolling Stone that he was looking for an assistant. I had a friend who was working there, and he passed the information along to me. I just went for it. I wrote some sort of crazy letter (I was not shy about mentioning I was a bartender at the time), and they got it into his hands. He called my apartment at 3:00 in the morning and told me to get out there the next day. Thus started my trial period. The relationship was similar to that of Alley and Walker—good days and bad days. Lots of substances. Lots of fun. And every once in a while it would all break down into a screaming match and a dish would whiz by your head or something. But there is something uniquely intimate about watching a genius write, or try to write, night after night. I feel very privileged to have witnessed that.
Why did you write Gonzo Girl as a novel as opposed to a memoir?
I’m twenty-three years removed from this experience, so I felt uncomfortable writing a memoir. I actually started my career in magazines as a fact-checker and research editor, so I’m a stickler for accuracy, and I don’t think I could rely on my memory to piece together a cohesive narrative that was 100 percent true.
I also wanted to be able to say certain things about this experience. I wanted to talk about the double-edged sword of the substance abuse. I wanted to explore these ideas of mentorship and the see-sawing power dynamics. And the only way I could think of to do it was to fictionalize it to give myself that freedom.
Also, the reality was a very visceral experience as opposed to a linear one. I’m not sure this story would have worked as a traditional memoir.
It’s been more than twenty years since you were Hunter S. Thompson’s assistant. Why write this book now?
I always knew this was a good story, but I don’t think I was a good enough writer until now to do it justice. I have an unpublished novel on my shelf that I call my “test pancake.” You could eat it, but I knew the next one would be better. And I learned from writing that book about how to structure a novel, how to maximize dialogue, decent writing habits—everything.
I also feel like the whole of the experience—what was going on at the time, what it meant—didn’t come into focus until I was at least forty. I was so naive when I was out there that I didn’t really grasp what I was witnessing.
What’s the biggest difference between you and Alley?
I would never rewrite someone’s work. Never. This is where fiction and the truth depart. But it’s very consistent with Alley’s naiveté and her hero worship of Walker. She is naively trying to save him from himself, even though she’s ill-equipped to do that.
Like Alley did for Walker, did you also edit Hunter’s writing while you were his assistant? What ever became of the book that he was working on?
The book he was working on was a work of fiction called Polo Is My Life. It was never published, and I don’t know what became of it. Thompson was an admittedly frustrated novelist. My sense is that it was like Madonna trying to act. His real life was way bigger, way more dynamic than any fiction he could write. And I didn’t “edit” his writing in any traditional sense of the word. My job was to get him to write. He was a tough enough editor of his own work.
Is it fair to say that Walker and Alley’s relationship can best be described as a twisted mentorship? How would you categorize their relationship?
“Twisted mentorship” is about right! I think their power dynamics flip-flop throughout the book, even from page to page. There is boss-worker. Friend-foe. Then there are the sexual dynamics. But the mentorship aspect is there. She is learning from him day by day, even if it’s not in a traditional way. Even if it’s just a lesson in what road to avoid. But Walker has the heft of his success behind him. And what he does with her manuscript at the end shows that he believes in her.
When talking to Alley about writing, Walker says, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” (p. 147). Do you think, to some extent, that this is true? Do writers need to pour their entire being into their work in order to produce something they are proud of?
Well, he’s quoting Hemingway when he says that. And certainly I think this is true for some writers. But I’m personally not of this mind. Oliver Stone says that the secret to writing is nothing but “ass plus chair,” and I put myself firmly in this camp. You can’t wait for some ethereal muse to “inspire” you. To me, it’s not that dramatic. Writing is more like digging a ditch or escaping from Shawshank. You just have to keep chipping away at the wall.
What was your biggest challenge while writing this book? What did you enjoy the most?
The biggest challenge was striking the right tone (I still don’t know if I succeeded at this). I was afraid that people might find this book irreverent when my intention was to write a love letter to a person and an experience that basically changed my life. But I didn’t want to sugarcoat the experience either. No one, least of all Hunter, would have wanted me to do that. So I hope the fondness for the experience comes through.
What I enjoyed the most while writing this was going back to that place. It was complicated, to be sure. But it was fun, and being with Hunter was never boring. And it obviously left a lasting impression.
What advice would you give to Alley or to your younger self?
Calm down. It’s all going to work out. There is an intensity to Alley—she’s trying so hard to make something of herself. She’s ambitious. But it all doesn’t have to happen in a day.
The last chapter of the book reads like an epilogue. Why did you feel like ending the book this way?
I didn’t want to be obtuse about what happened to either Alley or Walker. As a reader I would want to know. The backdrop of 9/11 also made sense to me. Thompson wrote an amazing column for ESPN.com on September 12 that basically predicted all that ensued politically over the coming years. The world had its collective jaw on the ground and he was already off to the races, ten steps ahead of everyone else about what was going to happen. But that is just illustrative of the many ways in which his political incisiveness was unrivaled.
What would you like your readers who are interested in Hunter S. Thompson’s writings to take away from Gonzo Girl?
Read his books! Of course, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is iconic and a must-read, but if that’s all you know of Hunter S. Thompson, you are missing out. I am particularly fond of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, which I consider his masterpiece. And I love The Great Shark Hunt, as I have a magazine background and it includes many of his famous magazine pieces. The two books of his letters edited by Douglas Brinkley are also outstanding for showing the evolution of both his voice and ideology.
Can you share with us any news of upcoming writing projects? What can we expect from you next?
I have been a freelance copyeditor for Us Weekly on and off since 2001, so I’m hard at work on a novel set in the realm of celebrity culture. I also might defrost the test pancake to see if I can make it edible.