Gonzo Girl: A Novel
“An excellent debut . . .”
Gonzo Girl, the new novel by Cheryl Della Pietra, sets off with perhaps the best first sentence in recent memory (“Everybody is laughing except for me.”) and roars along from there.
The tale is told in filmic language that demands visualization (a pantry is said to contain “a veritable Warhol installation of Campbell’s soup”) and barrels along at such a high velocity that the quick reader leaves his Kindle aflame.
Author Della Pietra, a young and thoroughly modern literary artist, is the living exemplar of the oldest and hoariest of adages, one repeated by mediocre writing teachers the world over: that it is best for all authors, especially debuting authors, to “write about what you know.”
For Della Pietra, that means writing about Hunter S. Thompson, here dubbed “Walker Reade” for whom she worked as a live-in assistant back when the Clintons first had their eyes on the White House.
Thus the “gonzo” reference in the book’s ever-so-slightly weak title that promises so much less than the book has to offer. (Our girl in the book is in no way gonzo, and the word never comes up in the text, so the sole purpose of the word is only to wave a flag at the Roman-a-clef nature of the whole endeavor, but oh, well. A small complaint.)
Our author names herself Alley Russo and for her purposes here allows “herself” to have graduated from the same school that she herself attended (Penn) and drops “herself,” a stranger in a strange land, way out in Colorado, right near Aspen, where she finds herself in a famous author’s living room, surrounded by assistants, attendants, and sycophants:
“Everybody is laughing except for me. I’m scanning the faces, trying to remember the names, as they listen to walker Reader recite from his novel in process.”
That partial novel is the whole point.
Alley is hired to help birth the thing, to trick, cajole, or otherwise threaten Reade into finishing the long-overdue first draft. As the job is explained to her by Reade’s longtime right hand woman, Claudia:
“’I take care of Walker’s affairs from eight to eight, then I retire to the cabin. You come over when he asks for you—usually sometime around three in the afternoon—and work all night with him. The general rule is hands on the typewriter by two a.m.’
“‘So, wait. What happens between three p.m. and two a.m.?’
“Claudia lets out a sharp laugh. ‘Let’s put it this way: anything can happen. You’ll see.’”
And that “anything” turns out to be just about anything, from shopping sprees along the line of those in Pretty Woman, to bacchanals in fine touristy restaurants, to escapades on the shooting range—all of which keeps the reader interested, if not increasingly judgmental.
Ms. Della Pietra writes with an immediacy of language that comes compounded with a certain snark. In Writing About What She Knows, she also offers a certain turn of phrase that both enlightens and delights.
As here, when she gives us a bit more to like about poor old exhausted Claudia:
“Many things about Claudia put me at ease, not the least of which is her voice. It has the timbre of a gentle, distant foghorn, the product of apparent decades of chain-smoking.”
Or here, where she describes Walker Reade’s very young girlfriend, Devaney:
“He’s fifty-two years old. She’s half his age, talks like Scarlett O’Hara, and look like a young Debbie Harry. End of story.”
Or here, where she explains that snorting cocaine (a requirement of the job) in time becomes something to which her body adapts, so that “the bump is less dramatic than it was when I first got here—still pulse-quickening but more predictable. Less David Lee Roth, more Sammy Hagar.”
She also has a way of reducing the descriptions of her characters down to the essential details in a way that must make her loved ones worry that she might one day deliver their eulogy:
“Lionel Gray is a New York City book editor as such a creature might appear in a movie. He wears an ascot and wing tips with no visible irony. His graying hair is slicked back just so. His office boats a mahogany desk. Leatherbound compilations of the complete works of Shakespeare line the wall—as if he makes he way through Act II of As You Like It over his ‘21’ burger, ordered in. Pictures of his two children are on his desk, a boy and a girl, who might be twins. They look like they have been raised by a team of well-paid staff, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they are currently ensconced in some outrageously expensive boarding school—even though they appear to be about ten years old. It’s just that contrived.”
Gonzo Girl rollicks along, a panoply of sex, drugs and ’90s movies shown on the jumbo screen. Reade rebels against having his fingers touch the Selectric’s keyboard. Alley mixes drinks (having worked her way through her nonpaying internship at a New York magazine by moonlighting as a bartender). And just when the reader’s interest begins to wane, just when he begins to think that maybe there is on payoff in sight, only more drugs, more bad behavior, and more worries worries worries over the fate of that stupid manuscript that is so slowly dripping, a page at a time, out of that electric typewriter, on pages 258 and 259 of the book something so beautiful happens that you see you’ve been taken in—that Ms. Della Pietra knew her destination all along as she drove her reader around in Walker Reade/Hunter S. Thompson’s vintage Caprice.
And suddenly, the world spins. And a novel that, however well written, seemed more and more to be a silly thing after all, perhaps only a fictionalization of a few months in NeverNever Land working for an overage Peter Pan, grows deep roots.
Gonzo Girl will most assuredly be a movie one day. It must be. It demands to be and, somewhere drenched in golden sunshine, Jennifer Lawrence must be contemplating dyeing her hair a rich chestnut in order to better impersonate Alley.
But it will, I promise you, be one of those movies that educated filmgoers sniff about over cappuccino after leaving the movie house, and say, “You know, the book was so much better. . . .”
Gonzo Girl deserves the time and attention that it takes to read. It’s rewards are many. And its author, Cheryl Della Pietra, is just now at the beginning of a distinguished career. An excellent debut, Gonzo Girl.
If only we could change that title. . . .