Fans of writer Hunter S. Thompson will remember the Tilley hat and aviator glasses. But the fear and loathing they masked is less celebrated — and is the subject of Cheryl Della Pietra’s debut novel, “Gonzo Girl,” inspired by her real experiences as Thompson’s assistant.
The facade of fiction is thin, and the book’s peculiar blend of novel and memoir ultimately blunts the benefits of each approach. But “Gonzo Girl” succeeds as a saucy summer page-turner that chronicles, in acid-bright color, both the joy of the high and the ache of the hangover.
Standing in for Della Pietra is narrator Alley Russo, a 22-year-old writer who applies to be Walker Reade’s assistant after graduation. Reade is a living legend, the father of gonzo journalism and a semi-professional cocaine addict. He’s also notorious for chewing through assistants like cigarette filters.
Alley’s interview alone involves terrorizing locals with guns, dressing like a high-price escort and roaring through the countryside in Thompson’s — sorry, Reade’s — 1973 Chevy Caprice.
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The novel’s escapades are colorful but mask some clunky writing. Della Pietra’s physical descriptions, in particular, often read like minutes from a game of Twister. “He motions for me to sit on the stool to his left, leans over with his left arm, and starts rubbing my right shoulder.” On the next page: “I place my left hand on Walker’s right shoulder so we are now face-to-face.”
And in lieu of characterization, Alley is just Italian. So Italian! She has a Mafia uncle and a family full of swarthy plumbers. She makes a mean all-day sauce and has a temper that “could kill a man after a single martini.” And, cryptically, she “know(s) how to bleed.”
Lest her heritage yet be called into question, Reade spends one memorable evening titillating Alley with the business end of a garlic clove. Subtlety is not Della Pietra’s strong suit.
But it wasn’t Thompson’s, either. Alley’s bravado is, at least, good fodder for conflict, and her confident voice often surprises and charms. At times, Alley seems to be test-driving a female machismo to match Reade’s stride. She’s quick to brag about writing honors (a Playboy contest win) and her SAT score (1480 — watch out, world!).
She seduces a visiting movie star, drops acid in a garden center and subsists on little more than cocaine and bruised tequila limes, all, ostensibly, in the service of her own novel.
“I have ambition that no one around here seems to understand,” she whines.
But that lack of self-awareness starts to grate, and readers may long for what a memoir could provide: an older, wiser voice mining fresh insight from past events. Such a voice emerges in the epilogue, but too late to do much good.
Della Pietra satisfies most when she abandons Alley’s plastic posturing and focuses on Walker Reade. Her reflections on Reade — and, by proxy, Thompson — seem at once revelatory and sadly predictable. “Gonzo Girl” denies fans the romance of the road, ending with a haunting charge to those who celebrated — and, in many ways, cemented — an author’s reckless lifestyle.
“Actors and musicians, they clean up, the world applauds,” she writes. “But nobody would applaud if Walker Reade cleaned up. … Walker is convinced he can’t function without the drugs. And he doesn’t think the world would give a damn about him if he tried.”
“Gonzo Girl” by Cheryl Della Pietra (272 pages; Touchstone; $24.99)