Chasing the Origins of Gonzo in South America

October 17, 2014   •   By Aaron Shulman

IN COLLEGE Brian Kevin read Hunter S. Thompson’s The Proud Highway, a collection of The Gonzo’s letters from the 1950s and 1960s, including 18 from the year he spent traveling through South America. Back then Thompson was just a young freelancer trying to make a name for himself, and he hoped filing dispatches from a tumultuous region few others were writing about would help kickstart his career.

Thompson’s plan worked. After a year in South America he came back with impressive clips, hard-earned reporting chops, admirers at big publications, and the new conviction that he was a serious journalist and not the novelist he had previously imagined himself to be. Yet rather than just making him more cosmopolitan, Thompson’s travels in South America brought out his Americanness and made him more acutely attuned to life in the US. At the close of his journey he wrote, “After a year of roaming around down here the main thing I’ve learned is that I now understand the United States, and why it will never be what it could have been, or at least tried to be.”

This enigmatic passage rattled around in writer Brian Kevin’s head for nearly a decade before he finally decided to seek out its meaning himself. He set off with a backpack on a six-month journey retracing Thompson’s footsteps across South America. The result is The Footloose American, a nonfiction mashup — part memoir, part literary biography, part travelogue, and part international news report. What Kevin uncovers about Hunter S. Thompson’s apotheosis as a sui generis American voice is just as valuable and interesting as what he has to say about South America today.

For this interview Kevin and I emailed back and forth during a month in which he was traveling to promote his book, reporting on a new canal project in Nicaragua, working as an editor at Down East Magazine, and being a first-time dad to his newborn son.


AARON SHULMAN: How did this book come about? Or to put it differently, at what point — and why — did you realize that retracing the steps of Hunter S. Thompson in South America had a real heft to it as a story that you wanted to dive into?

BRIAN KEVIN: The truth is, I didn't know whether it would have any heft as a story, and I'm still not totally sure it does. Not in the traditional sense of story, anyway, the sense of story as plot. But this is a form I enjoy as a reader, this flâneuring sub-genre of travel writing, which often (though not always) takes the form of a “following in the footsteps” narrative, somebody retracing some path or another to see if it still leads where it once led.

Earlier this year, the novelist Sabina Murray wrote a piece about W.G. Sebald for whatever the magazine is that starts showing up at your house when you register for AWP. In it, she wrote, “Plot is unnecessary to move a book around when you’ve given the narrative an actual pair of legs, pair of eyes, and an articulate, thoughtful voice.” That's kind of a bold claim once you start extending it to somebody other than Sebald, but I think it's true of something like Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar or Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia. I guess my hope was that this might fall somewhere in that tradition (though I don't suppose for a minute I have their chops).

As for how/when it came about, ever since I read a smattering of Thompson's letters from South America in The Proud Highway (the first collection of Thompson's correspondence), I'd thought it was surprising that nobody had written more about how this year abroad had played out for him, how it shaped him. That was something like 12 years ago. Four or five years after that, when I was a grad student, I got to thinking that might make a decent Fulbright proposal, more of an academic project. But it didn't work out as a Fulbright pitch, and then suddenly I was divorced and out of school and kind of directionless, and I had all these frequent flyer miles, so I thought I'd just go and see what came of it.

You have a great eye, giving the reader those fantastic "telling details" throughout, and spirited prose to match. But you also know how to zoom back and color in the places you're visiting with historical and cultural context. How much of that research was done before, during, and after your trip? Was your experience as coherent as the story you present, or was that done in the writing and editing?

Where research was concerned, I'd do just enough reading before I showed up in a place to feel like I had some basic context and a few questions to try to find answers to: is there any future in passenger traffic on the Magdalena? Are Bolivia's miners better off than 50 years ago? Is the Peace Corps a service organization or a diplomatic one? But then, just about everywhere I went, I made a point to impose upon people who are smarter than me, taking them out for beers and picking their brains a little — local journalists, NGO types, diplomats. In terms of research tools, free beer is up there with Google and library cards. I spent time in libraries while I was on the road, too, but it was mostly looking at historic photo collections, just trying to get a sense of places as Thompson might have seen them. Hard data (what's the average life expectancy of a Bolivian miner? how many head of cattle are being run in the Pantanal?) I tended to gather later on, during the writing process.

One thing I do whenever I travel abroad is try to find a couple of that country's more hyped novels in translation. I don't read enough fiction anyway, so travel is a good excuse, but this is also pretty invaluable research. On the Thompson trip, I came across stuff I likely never would have otherwise: Daniel Alarcón's excellent Lost City Radio, for example, or the Bolivian novelist Juan de Recacoechea.

As far as coherent experience is concerned, sure, much of that is a result of storytelling decisions. I even relay some happenings out of sequence, which is something I cop to in the author's note, but that's pretty rare.

In many ways, following Hunter S. Thompson's footsteps feels like a pretext or a hook for your own story, which is interesting in its own right, but perhaps hard to sell/market these days. I say this because so much of the book stands on its own — a writer on a travel odyssey through South America sending back fascinating dispatches. Was it at all frustrating having to constantly peg and intertextually weave your experiences and Thompson's, or was that part of the fun of it?

Actually sort of the contrary. But for the publisher's urging, there would be even less of "my story" in this book — in the sense of my backstory and personal ruminations on my emotional state, how I feel the trip is going, etc. My goal with the book was to try and weave three strands: a look at how Thompson was shaped by his foreign correspondence in South America, a look at how South America continues to be shaped by the ghosts of the Cold War, and some reflection on travel-as-such, on the reasons people give themselves for leaving home and their expectations of what they'll come back with.

I suspect you're talking about the last two strands when you say "your own story," and in that case, oh yeah, the Thompson Trail is largely a framing device ("gimmick" is too strong a word, but trending in the direction of gimmick) to get at these fairly unwieldy topics. But my attitude was that I am — I mean, my personal story is — far and away the least interesting thing going on in this book, and the few introspective personal asides that punctuate the book were woven in largely at the insistence of the publisher, because I think they see this as salable/marketable. "Tell us how Ecuador made you grow." Fuck that, man, it's all I can do in 8,000 words to tell you why you should care about what's happening in Ecuador in the first place.

But I do like this weaving process. I like the technical challenge of it, and I like the slow-burn realizations of how each of these strands informs one another. I'm also glad that you tossed out the word "intertextual," because that's another thing that I tried to do in TFA — invoke a bunch of other books. That's mostly because I think travel itself is (or ought to be, or is at its best) a process of engaging with a bunch of existing texts, and I wanted the book to mimic that.

It seems like serendipity, or a lack thereof, is what often makes a travel story great. Or maybe they're the same thing. For example, in The Road to Oxiana, a travel narrative I love by Robert Byron, the author gets a severe case of diarrhea and ends up falling down a flight of stairs — a scene I'll never forget. On the serendipity side for you there's the scene at the American embassy in Ecuador when the get-on-the-floor alarm goes off, which apparently almost never occurs, but you just happened to be there for it. And on the lack-thereof side, there's the rainstorm that sinks your boat on the Magdalena River in Colombia just a few hours away from your destination. How did good luck and bad luck play into the experiences you had to write about? Do you wish you had more bad luck, or more good luck?

Yeah, that's an interesting question. What's funny is that we're able to talk about a travel piece in these terms — good luck and bad luck providing an author with material — in a way that seems quite innocent, but if we were to start talking about, say, memoir this way, it might quickly get kind of awkward: "It seems like serendipity plays a role in whether a memoir's any good, Frank McCourt. How did the bad luck of your dad's raging alcoholism figure into what you had to write about?"

And yet, you're totally right. I think "serendipity" is indeed a more accurate term than good or bad luck, in its sense of finding something you needed that you weren't looking for (the relative goodness or badness of it being sort of beside the point). For me, that reliance on serendipity is no different with travel writing than with any other form of reporting. If I'm writing a profile, for instance, and while I'm hanging out with the subject, I suddenly catch that moment of vulnerability that's going to make things gel, it's a mostly identical feeling to when I suddenly realize that Hunter Thompson witnessed a massacre 50 years ago at the same bar I've been drinking at all week. It's the same chill-up-your-spine sensation, along with the totally self-serving, writerly realization that, hey, this might be good in the retelling. I guarantee you the first thing to pop into Robert Byron's head when he landed at the bottom of those stairs in a slick pool of his own feces was, "Okay, I can use this."

There's an interesting irony — or tension — in the fact that you, or your persona, seems very un-Hunter S. Thompson, not a "whirling dervish of journalistic mayhem," as you describe him. You're not irascible, you have a Midwestern politeness, you're always understanding and empathetic even when things go against you, and you're not especially reckless or much of a partier (though you do end up "expounding passionately on American tax policy" in a brothel in Paraguay). You mention this irony early on, but how did it help or hinder you in having a memorable trip and in writing the book?

Well, there's an extent to which I play up my own non-gonzo persona to get a couple of laughs out of the contrast. And it's not like I'm a teetotaler or anything — an Amazon reviewer recently pointed out that I reference drinking beer on something like every fourth page. But the easiest answer to how it helped in writing the book is that I just don't think anyone cares to read a book by some asshole trying to parrot what he imagines to be Hunter Thompson's debauched lifestyle. What could be more dull?

I'm pretty sure "rascible" is a nonexistent unpaired word, but I'm going to go ahead and use it. I'm super rascible. And I'm all the more rascible when people are being really generous with their time to help me better understand the finer points of Latin American history and social movements and such.

The other thing is that Thompson was a lot more rascible as a young man than people give him credit for. There's a line from his first piece from South America that I think tells us something about how he approached his best later work. Describing how he managed to get along with the Wayuu villagers he found himself stranded among in Guajira, Colombia, he credits his "size and drinking capacity" and adds, "it was fear — a man traveling alone among reportedly savage Indians dares not get drunk." I think the same goes for Hell's Angels and Kentucky colonels and political sharks. That is, I think Thompson probably had it a lot more together during some of his landmark reporting than popular legend would have us believe (the guy could hold his liquor). And if you look at the quality of his work later in life, when he was a lot more publicly dervish-y and irascible, I think it sort of puts the lie to the notion that madcap recklessness is going to somehow give you better material.

One of the through lines of the book I liked the best were your close readings, sometimes line by line, of Thompson's dispatches from South America, to extrapolate how the experience could have influenced his later work/worldview. I wanted even more of it. Did you have to hold back this forensic literary criticism to keep the story moving (and your publisher happy), or was there just only so much you could end up saying on this topic?

Oh thanks, that's nice of you to say. You know, the publisher didn't weigh in on this too heavily, although you're probably right that my editor would have reined me in if I'd devoted a lot more space to it. I did want to try and find the glimmers of Gonzo in this early reporting, and it was interesting to me to notice and explore concordances between Thompson's early journalism and the later stuff he's known for. There are moments in the book where I would have been happy to nerd out a little more — for example, on this binary of noble illusion versus brutish reality that starts to take shape in the South American reportage, and which provides the central tension in so much of his later work. Or on the very notions of "brutishness" and "savagery" — which later become these sort of rhetorical greatest hits for Thompson — and on how they relate to his discomfort upon first exposure to indigenous poverty and exploitation.

The book indulges in some of this, but I did hold back a little because I ultimately wanted it to be accessible to people who could give a shit about Hunter Thompson. (There's also good Thompson scholarship already being done by people who are much smarter than me — William Stephenson's Gonzo Republic is a good starting place, for example.) Also, there were things I wanted to explore about the nature of travel and tourism that were as or more important to me than any of the Thompson lit-crit stuff. So yeah, it was a bit of a balancing act.

What was the best story, character, detail you left out?

I spent some time in Bolivia with the Fathers and Brothers of the Maryknoll Society, which is an order within the Catholic Church dedicated to foreign mission work with a social justice bent. The Maryknollers played a pretty big role in the embrace of liberation theology in Latin America throughout the 20th century, and Thompson mentions (and praises) their work in a couple of his pieces and letters. It's a fascinating group for a couple of different reasons. One thing that caught my interest is that an awful lot of Maryknollers joined at a time when, if you wanted to devote yourself to social justice work abroad, there were very few avenues to do so outside of mission work. So you have these folks who might just as easily have ended up in the NGO sphere or the voluntourism sector or some corner of academia, but instead they became clergy (which is not to question their spiritual devotion, just to say that Maryknoll is filled with people who followed what was probably quite a different call than your local parish priest).

It's also a noticeably graying order, which is (arguably) in part because young people drawn to service work abroad have so many other options than they did in the middle of the 20th century. Anyway, they were very open to me, super candid in interviews and allowed me to lurk unrepentantly around their campus in Cochabamba, Bolivia. But it just didn't end up fitting with the rest of my Bolivia material. All the various ways I tried writing it felt like an aside, and in the end, the Bolivia portion of the book was running super long, so I swallowed hard and cut it. I still think there's an interesting story to be written about Maryknoll in what may be its twilight — or at least in transition. This is particularly true now that Pope Francis is trying to make "liberation theology" less of a dirty word in the Catholic Church.

What has been the reaction to the book thus far? Are people more interested in Hunter S. Thompson or South America?

It's a mix, but a lot of the interviews and things that I've done have probably favored this curiosity about what the young Thompson was like and whether/how I set out to channel him (which then becomes a conversation about why I did not). Which I can quite understand. He's an enigmatic personality, and while Latin American sociopolitical history is a lot of things, it is not sexy. One thing that's come up a few times is this idea of transformation as it relates to travel, and I'm glad for that — that's sort of the central question of the book: did travel change Thompson, and if so, how? Can it change us? How much change is fair to expect?

The Times review was interesting because it grouped the book with a couple of others about "transformative travel," although ultimately I come to the conclusion that the transformative nature of travel is a little overhyped. One thing that the Times review and others keyed in on is the really small detail of my divorce, which I think is interesting and maybe shows how people are sort of looking for a certain kind of travel narrative—one about somebody who's running from some disappointment or demon and finds rebirth. I'm sitting on a panel at AWP next year that'll talk a little about that expectation, and specifically about how an author’s gender affects readers' and publishers' assumptions about transformation and Weltschmerz in travel lit. (It's called Wild vs. Into the Wild, which I think is clever and can take zero credit for.)

In your epilogue, you note how similar the US and South America are in spirit in many ways, and you make a powerful observation that the US has actually become more like South America in the last 50 years than South America like the US. Could you talk about that a bit more, and share any other realizations you've had about the two continents since finishing the book?

Yeah, the realization that I came to was that Thompson basically saw through classical modernization theory years before it fell out of vogue. He saw that the rhetoric of the Cold War was built on these sort of bullshit utopian assumptions — that if a developing nation were to follow steps x, y, and z, then it could leave behind this "phase" of oligarchy and sectarian tension and material hardship, etc. And then, you know, by and by it would become more or less like us in the Global North. But what Thompson saw in 1962 — and what I think a traveler in Latin America still very much sees today — is that the specters of oligarchy and clan conflict and all the rest don't ever actually dissipate, never mind whether you have a healthy banking sector or free elections or an entrepreneurial class or whatever bars you want to set for modernity.

It's dangerous for me to say stuff like this, because of course I wasn't around in 1962, but I think Americans live with a lot fewer illusions today that our prosperity has somehow moved us beyond the problems that characterize the developing world. Look at the discussion that (rightfully) sprung up during and after the Ferguson demonstrations, about how Ferguson laid bare our struggles with the same crucibles that our foreign policy tries to address abroad — persecution of minorities, lack of social mobility, restrictions on the press, sectarian obstructionism, and so on. I guess what I said in the epilogue is maybe just a windbag way of saying that the exceptionalist moment has come to an end in America since Thompson was a pup. In the meantime, much of Latin America has adopted a "no one's backyard" attitude that I think is healthy. Clientelism is still a very real thing, but I think it's fair to say that the US now recognizes Latin America's basic right of self-determination in a way that just wasn't true during the containment era, and that represents progress.

What's next?

Oh shit, I don't know. I'm concentrating on magazine work in the very near term, and the next big project that most interests me involves a road trip and the for-profit education sphere and me atoning for some work that I've done that I'm not really proud of. Sufficiently cryptic?


Aaron Shulman is a freelance journalist who has written for The New RepublicThe American Scholar, and The Awl, among other publications.