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Original Essays

The Gang's All Here

by Marc Weingarten
Writing The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight was the fulfillment of a dream — to actually delve deep into a subject that excited me and get paid for it. The book, which is a history of the New Journalism movement, was met with raised eyebrows by some when I first got started, especially from old line journalists who looked upon New Journalism as a) nothing new, b) an opportunity for careerist writers to showboat, and c) fiction.

Some writers took offense to the entire enterprise. The New Yorker legend Lillian Ross, who had parodied the New Journalism in a "Talk of The Town" piece 40 years ago, failed to see what the fuss was about. But Ross came of age in the '30s and '40s, too early to feel the seismic impact of the New Journalism. But to anyone who read Esquire and Rolling Stone in the '60s and read writers like Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, Michael Herr and others, New Journalism was so much more than reportage — it was a new way of looking at the world, written in a style that approximated the excitement of the era.

As a child of the '70s who was bored to distraction by the literature I was taught in high school, and that damn stone-tablet Norton anthology that weighed down my backpack, the New Journalism was an adrenaline shot to the brain. It was prose that packed the same head-charge as the rock music I loved, the wild style and boldness. It excited me in a way that Thomas Hardy didn't. When my book was published in hardcover, many critics took me to task for attempting to elevate New Journalism as literature. But I still stand by that claim: As prose stylists, Tom Wolfe and Thomas Pynchon have more in common that many would perhaps like to admit.

In order to understand the impact of these writers, one must cast one's mind back to a time before blogs, split-second news updates and the machinery of the media superstructure that dominates popular thought today. In the '60s and '70s, subcultures could very effectively remain sub rosa if they so chose; unlike the present day, selling out wasn't the American Dream and outcasts could keep to themselves. And so we needed writers like Tom Wolfe, this patrician southerner with impeccable manners, a fine academic pedigree and voracious curiosity, to introduce us to Kustom Kar wizards, Southern California surfers, Ken Kesey and incipient counter-culture.

Similarly, we needed someone like Hunter Thompson (also a southerner, but troubled and restless where Wolfe kept to a straighter line) to dive headlong into the muck and show us what riding with the Hell's Angels was really all about. By contrast, Gay Talese didn't like to sully his suit. He was a patient writer, a listener like Marion Jones is a runner. He could wait out a subject until the core was revealed, and the inner life blossomed into view. By doing this, Talese became the greatest magazine feature writer of his time, perhaps the best of any era.

Interviewing these writers, among many others, was by far the most fascinating part of the Gang gig. I talked to Hunter Thompson in his Woody Creek, Colorado, home a few years before his suicide, and it was an experience I won't soon forget.

Thompson was famously nocturnal; he liked to write, pontificate and drink in the wee small hours. That was fine with me, as long as a I begged off the hashish and booze that Thompson so generously proffered. The Gonzo king was erratic but always compelling. He enjoyed discussing his salad days when he was Rolling Stone's biggest star, but he would slip in and out of focus. Stories would trail off, and another drink would be mixed, or something on television would send him into an anti-Bush tirade.

But when he was on-point, I could see why this man was such a great storyteller; he was a master at leavening serious subject matter with mordant wit, even if it was only kitchen-table conversation at 4 in the morning.

Thompson was generous with his time and a real mensch. I recall mentioning in passing some book project I was trying to get off the ground; without hesitation, Thompson picked up the phone called up his "connected publishing buddy" to try and help me out. I felt, perhaps naively, that we had stumbled towards a tentative bond across the two nights that we talked face to face. I am not happy about the fact that the world doesn't have Hunter Thompson in it anymore.

I met Tom Wolfe in his beautifully appointed New York apartment — me in my shlubby jeans and Urban Outfitters sweater, Wolfe in a three-piece hound's-tooth ensemble, with the pocket square folded just so. I have talked to a lot of famous people in my line of work, but this was the first time that my palms were sweaty. It's a heavy thing when Tom Wolfe greets you in his New York apartment with the pocket square folded just so.

As Wolfe ate a late dinner, I plunked my cheap tape recorder on his lovely lacquer dining table (two recorders, actually; I wasn't taking any chances) and Wolfe proceeded to talk for over three hours about every aspect of his career. And then, when I called him a week later, he talked some more. And then some more on numerous other occasions. This is when the journalist becomes the groupie, I'm sorry to say; to have Wolfe give me so much was just too damn cool.

There were other great days, other wonderful interviews. My goal for the book — of reclaiming New Journalism as something that has had a lasting impact on media and culture — is something that I hope I have achieved. You can decide that for yourself, I suppose. But one thing's for sure; you can't have more fun researching a book than I did. I double-dare ya. spacer

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