Run­ning with the wild bulls

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

AWISE teacher once told me that noth­ing mem­o­rable can be writ­ten without the writer tak­ing some kind of risk. I knew in­stantly what he meant, in a broad sense — in­clud­ing that the risk need not be phys­i­cal — but have spent a lot of time over the years think­ing through the de­tails.

Now, for me at least, the cir­cle has been closed, with one of my for­mer stu­dents pro­duc­ing a won­der­ful work of non­fic­tion that demon­strates the point about writ­ing and risk in all its rag­ing glory. In My Colom­bian Death ( pub­lished by Pi­cador), Matthew Thomp­son de­scribes how, at 35, he aban­doned his wife and young daugh­ter to de­scend into the bad­lands of Colom­bia, there to dis­cover him­self, more truly and more strangely.

Feel­ing an on­set of spir­i­tual fa­tigue, as an upand-com­ing young jour­nal­ist, and fear­ful lest it come to de­fine him, Thomp­son de­cides he must test him­self in ad­ver­sity. Pre­vi­ously, most of what he’s known of places less cosy than Syd­ney has been gleaned by sift­ing through the for­eign wires in the air­con­di­tioned offices of The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald . Hav­ing heard about Colom­bia — its cor­rup­tion, its militias, its drugs, its street crime — Thomp­son de­cides the place is mean enough to sat­isfy his cri­te­ria. ( He’s al­most the re­verse of your con­ven­tional tourist.) Ig­nor­ing my re­peated ad­vice to the con­trary — though that bit does not make it into the book — he quits his day job and com­mences Span­ish lessons.

One news­pa­per de­scribed My Colom­bian Death as ‘‘ a hell-ride through South Amer­ica’s dead­li­est melt­ing pot,’’ and it’s not a bad sum­ming up. Thomp­son runs with the bulls, com­ports with drug barons and in­gests nu­mer­ous drugs him­self, in­clud­ing, in the book’s cli­max, the fa­bled hal­lu­cino­gen, yage . It is this mother-of-all-trips, fol­lowed by a sense of re­birth, that leads Thomp­son, fi­nally, to the re­verse of a con­ven­tional piece of Aus­tralian wis­dom: ‘‘ Death was not meant to be easy.’’

Just be­cause noth­ing great can be writ­ten without tak­ing a risk doesn’t mean ev­ery risk taken leads to great writ­ing. The achieve­ment of My Colom­bian Death is not the risk, which any idiot could have taken, but the writ­ing, which is hu­mor­ous, re­flec­tive and ironic: qual­i­ties without which the whole thing could have be­come an empty ex­er­cise in machismo.

The point of Thomp­son’s jour­ney, and of his book, is the ex­is­ten­tial­ist one that a life lived en­tirely within a de­fined role, and in which we are not re­defin­ing our­selves ev­ery in­stant, is barely life at all:

‘‘ It has been valu­able be­yond mea­sure to come here and run with bulls and mur­der­ers and dance in rub­ble. I know in my bones now that the raw shocks of life — even as they wound, or threaten to — shake ex­is­tence into its essence. It’s a lack of im­pacts that un­does a man.

‘‘ Of course I’m not drawn to death or griev­ous bod­ily harm, but when life re­volves around their avoid­ance there’s not much life to pre­serve.

‘‘ I am alive here, whereas I was on the fade back home.’’

The two most ob­vi­ous pre­cur­sors to My Colom­bian Death are Among the Thugs ( 1991), Bill Bu­ford’s ac­count of a year spent among Bri­tish soc­cer hooli­gans, and Hell’s Angels ( 1966), by Thomp­son’s name­sake, Hunter S. Thomp­son.

All three books are about a de­scent, via stages, into bad places pop­u­lated by bad peo­ple, with a wrench­ing or vi­o­lent cli­max fol­lowed by a sense of emer­gence and release: it may well be Dante’s In­ferno that is the archetype for all three. They are, to some ex­tent, stud­ies of the be­hav­iour of crowds or mobs. Bu­ford and Hunter Thomp­son get the shit kicked out of them at the end of their ex­pe­ri­ences, Bu­ford by riot po­lice in Sardinia and Thomp­son by the Angels he has been hang­ing out with.

In all three books, a key part of the ad­ven­ture in­volves the writer striv­ing to meet the leader of the pack, who turns out to be a va­ri­ety of ma­nip­u­la­tor or pup­pet mas­ter. For Matt Thomp­son it is mili­tia supremo and ‘‘ death lord’’ Sal­va­tore Man­cuso ( who was de­ported to the US seven months ago); for Bu­ford it is the elu­sive Steamin’ Sammy, who al­ways seems to have a wad of cash and a pri­vate means of trans­porta­tion; and for Hunter Thomp­son it is Angels leader Sonny Barger, a kind of poet-philoso­pher and more than a match for the cops.

In this kind of writ­ing, de­scrip­tion and di­a­logue are ev­ery­thing. Here is Bu­ford, de­scrib­ing the mouth of one of the soc­cer louts:

‘‘ There were many gaps, the raw rim of the gums show­ing where once there must have been teeth. Of the teeth still in­tact, many were chipped or split; none was straight: they ap­pear to have grown up at odd, un­con­ven­tional an­gles or ( more likely) been redi­rected by a pow­er­ful phys­i­cal in­flu­ence at some point in their ca­reer.

‘‘ All of them were highly coloured: deep brown or caked with yel­low or, like a pea soup, mushy-green and veg­etable-soft with de­cay. This was a mouth that had suf­fered many slings and ar­rows along with the oc­ca­sional thrash­ing and sev­eral hun­dred­weight of to­bacco and Cad­bury’s milk chocolate.

‘‘ This was a mouth through which a great deal of life had passed at, it would ap­pear, an un­com­pro­mis­ing speed.’’

As this pas­sage sug­gests, there is a de­gree of pa­tro­n­is­ing in Bu­ford, a habit nei­ther Thomp­son falls into. The true mas­ter­piece among th­ese three books is Hell’s Angels , largely be­cause of the qual­ity of the char­ac­ter sketches. Here’s Hunter S.’ s de­scrip­tion of Buz­zard from San Bernardino, an ‘‘ An­gel from cen­tral cast­ing’’:

‘‘ He is a weird com­bi­na­tion of men­ace, ob­scen­ity, el­e­gance and a gen­uine dis­trust of ev­ery­thing that moves. He turns his back on pho­tog­ra­phers and thinks all jour­nal­ists are agents of the Main Cop, who lives in a pent­house on the other side of some bot­tom­less moat that no Hell’s An­gel will ever cross ex­cept as a pris­oner, and then only to have his hands chopped off as a les­son to the oth­ers.

‘‘ There is a beau­ti­ful con­sis­tency about Buz­zard; he is a por­cu­pine among men, with his quills al­ways flared. If he won a new car with a raf­fle ticket bought in his name by some mo­men­tary girl­friend, he would recog­nise it at once as a trick to con him out of a li­cence fee. He would de­nounce the girl as a hired slut, beat up the raf­fle spon­sor, and trade off the car for five hun­dred Se­conals and a gold-han­dled cat­tle prod.’’

Doesn’t that re­mind you of how well Hunter S. could write be­fore he turned into a dru­gad­dled par­ody of him­self?

rearview@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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