There are different types of Hunter S. Thompson fans. There are those who have read (and watched) Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas dozens of times. They’ve donned aviators, a Hawaiian shirt, and a Tilley hat while yelling, “We can’t stop here, this is bat country!” on multiple Halloweens. There’s the types who have read Thompson’s most prolific pieces: the aforementioned Fear And Loathing, Hell’s Angels, The Rum Diary, The Great Shark Hunt. Maybe Thompson even inspired them to go to journalism school. Then there’s the hardcore fans, who have read every deep cut, post on the forums, and are already planning their pilgrimage to the rumored Hunter S. Thompson museum at his ranch in Woody Creek, Colorado. Gonzo Girl will intrigue and satiate the father of gonzo’s diverse cross-section of fans. And it’ll likely annoy some, too.
This debut novel is based on writer and editor Cheryl Della Pietra’s experience working as Thompson’s editorial assistant in 1992. It’s a light-hearted page-turner that has the reader constantly trying to differentiate between fact and fiction. The short novel opens with recent Ivy League grad Alley Russo auditioning for a gig as an assistant to Walker Reade, the fictionalized version of Thompson. After a boisterous three-day trial period—rife with acid trips, cocaine-spurred shopping sprees, and target practice with a .44 Magnum—Alley gets the coveted position that eight others have quit in the past year and a half.
She packs up and moves to Woody Creek to live on Reade’s bucolic property with his two other employees, his long-time personal assistant Claudia, who’s based on Thompson’s real-life assistant Deborah Fuller, and his flavor-of-the-week full-time girlfriend, Devaney. Alley’s end goal is to get her manuscript published, an Ivy League tell-all that’s a veiled account of Della Pietra’s time at Penn University. However, Alley quickly realizes that her “personal assistant” gig is more like a glorified babysitter, and her charge is a coke-fiend with a mean streak and a penchant for firearms and explosives.
Written in the tone of an over-educated, sarcastic twentysomething, the reader is transported back to the early 1990s, a time when fishnet shirts are fashionable and Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who Reade calls “a fucking skuzzball,” is running for president. While Gonzo Girl is a page-turner, it leaves the reader constantly wondering how much of Alley and Reade’s raucous adventures are true. Della Pietra first wrote about her experience for P.O.V. Magazine in 1998, which means fans can cross-check some of the most outrageous bits.
Did Thompson actually throw a Grammy at Della Pietra? (No, but he did “Frisbee toss” a dish at her head once.) Did they a shoot a screecher gun in front of a bunch of hikers, scream “Yee-ha!” and drive away in Thompson’s Chevrolet Caprice? (Kind of. They were snowmobilers and Della Pietra was the one firing the gun.) Did Della Pietra, once she finally coaxed a measly page out of Thompson, re-write whole sentences of his draft before faxing them off to the editor? (Probably not.)
Many of these likely fictionalized bits enhance the storyline, like a hilarious scene that finds Alley tripping on purple pyramid acid and debating the pros and cons aloud of whether she should a kiss child star turned serious Oscar-winning actor. For all the cynicism and witty comebacks Alley doles out on the regular, it’s refreshing to see her actually show her neuroses in these scenes.
In Gonzo Girl, Alley stays with Reade for an entire year, eventually getting that novel out of him. In reality, Della Pietra lasted for one summer and the book Thompson was working on at the time, his long-awaited Polo Is My Life, never came out. A straight-up memoir about Della Pietra’s time at Owl Farm in Woody Creek would have been more satisfying for his cult-like followers—although the fact-checking mission created by Gonzo Girl will bring hours of joy. (Plus, the memoir likely would have cut out the awkward romantic storylines between Alley and Reade, which culminates in a cringeworthy garlic-meets-nipple orgasm).
However, casual fans will get a bigger kick out of the story—especially those post J-school writer types—as the novel adds to the mythology of Thompson and tells the coming-of-age story of a young woman and the measures she’ll take to get her manuscript published. Gonzo Girl offers a glimpse into the wonderful and weird world of Thompson—or something like it.