Gonzo Nonfiction

In response to my last post, I received an email from a college friend who told me I had come to Madison in 1966, not 1965.  Possible, and I had a momentary thought of tracking down the “factual” date.  I didn’t, but the note got me thinking about my “Just sayin’” posts and what the hell I want them to be.  The first words that came to mind were “creative non-fiction.”  Turns out that’s already a formal term: “Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.”

Not what I do.  Sorry.  I’m much less interested in factual accuracy than in making a point or raising questions.

When I wrote Matt Jacob books, I started each one wanting to explore some issue, theme, or personal relationship.  Usually more than one.  During the writing process, those concerns often morphed or changed entirely—but themes, issues, and personal relationships were always my concern and always in the front of my mind.  They are the reason I’m writing again, be it posts, more Matt Jacob books, or different projects entirely.

Ironically, when I was writing “pure” fiction, an enormous number of people and critics accused me of writing fact.  That Matt Jacob was really me, despite clear knowledge they were reading fiction.  Said so right on the cover.  That alone taught me the line between nonfiction and fiction is often quite blurry.  (Particularly when a critic didn’t like what I wrote.  More about this another time.)

Well, I guess I can’t claim that my posts are straight nonfiction.  Nor are they fiction or even creative nonfiction.

That leaves Gonzo. See Hunter Thompson, known as the “creator of gonzo journalism.”

Of course, what I write has little or nothing to do with journalism.  Even in his whacky, drugged-out Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson was covering an event.  But I’m much less interested in any particular event than how it affects me and connects to other people.  Perhaps I should term these posts Ego Nonfiction but I’m gonna just stick with “gonzo.”

Which is why when my cousin’s son Scott comment about “On, Wisconsin!” pleased me.

“Wait, does this mean liberals have occasionally been made, not born? Looking at you and my old man at that time – or what I thought I knew – I could have sworn you guys were just “always that way.” Interesting to read about this turn of events.  And raises questions for the next generation on how we got where we are.”

My story had conveyed the point I was trying to make.  And more importantly, had raised questions in his mind.  Dare I say “mission accomplished?”

But I do promise, if I decide to write anything journalistic, I’ll put a warning in its title and you can count on a fact check.  Maybe.

More to come.

“On, Wisconsin!”

Despite my unswerving refusal to attend classes—even ones I enjoyed—Madison reshaped my perception of reality.  And I’m not talking drugs, though they did reawaken a spiritual sense that all those yeshiva years had exorcised.

When I arrived in 1965, the University was beginning to smolder with anti-war dissent.  But not for me.  While I hadn’t given Vietnam much thought, I, along with all the people I knew prior to college, supported the war even as we scrambled to find ways not to fight.

I was aware of the unrest around the campus, but was absorbed in adjusting to an entirely new life. This included dealing with a roommate proud to be chosen as the token Jew in a gentile fraternity. Oy vey.

Sometime during my first semester, however, colorful posters in the dorm announced that an upcoming anti-war roadshow would be visiting my building.

Contrarian that I was, (am?) I wrote a list of “questions” designed to challenge and shred any potential argument against the war.  Full of myself, I actually expected to convince the tour they were marching to the wrong tune.

The social room of Ogg East was packed. Most residents shared my pro-war views and were vehement about their opinions.  Raised voices were the norm—though not from the other side of the divide.  The anti-war group simply let the pro-war anger and insults roll by until eventually the room settled into an uneasy silence.

Which was when I trotted out my bulldog attack and re-raised the temperature.

Every “question” I asked was backed by cheers of agreement. Question after question, cheer after cheer.  If there was a time when the anti-war folks wanted to return the jeers, this was it.  Question after question, cheer after cheer, but their quiet responses suddenly shut me up.

I was an idiot.  Not because the questions were stupid. Not because I was embarrassed by the dorm residents’ behavior and their refusal to even listen.  Because the anti-war answers made more sense than any of my, or anyone else’s, arguments or attacks.

On that night, in that room, the world I knew shifted. The calm arguments had chiseled away my inbred trust of our government. That blind faith was replaced by an understanding not only of the war itself, but Vietnam as a logical manifestation of policies designed to fuel the military industrial complex (Eisenhower was clearly smarter than I) and the feeding of the rich and powerful.

Our foreign policies (not only Vietnam), our domestic economic inequality, peoples’ distaste for the “other” and our country’s rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia became understandable and of a piece.  It all made gut sense.  A world view that had been hidden inside just waiting for an invite to surface.  Known and now, finally, Named.

More to come…

Eyeballing Back

Creating fiction has always been crucial.  Imperative, really, to keep my mother from slamming my ass with the telephone or frat paddle.  To juke the rabbis in the Brooklyn Mirrer Yeshiva when they’d catch me in Greenwich Village or reading Playboy (just for the interviews, of course).  Unfortunately my verbal dancing wasn’t always successful since I got thrown out before high school graduation.  But no serious damage.  I’d done well on the New York State Regents and had been accepted at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, before the toss. (Actually, everyone from the yeshiva did well. They made sure the collective marks were always high enough to keep their accreditation.)

Still, I talked the school into letting me attend graduation albeit with an empty envelope.  Which left me to explain to my mother and stepfather that the missing diploma had to do with unpaid library fees.  Hell, even though I no longer lived at home, that fucking paddle still hung by the back door.

Sometimes my best barbs backfired.  The year I quit Wisconsin had something to do with a challenge to the prof in a political sociology lecture about the use of twenty-five dollar words for twenty-five cent concepts.  I felt the eyes of a hundred and fifty classmates on my back as I trudged out of the large hall at the professor’s demand.  Back then 25 dollars to 25 cents was significant economic disparity.  Pissed him off.

The real irony of leaving Wisconsin and joining Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) was my assignment to the YWCA’s storefront outpost in Uptown, Chicago.  My job was to create a night school for high school dropouts.  I’m an ironic guy but it took a serious do to get my head around that one.

More to come