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Book Review: Hella Nation by Evan Wright

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Veteran journalist and author Evan Wright begins Hella Nation by giving a formal repudiation of the categorization of “gonzo” – the journalistic genre pioneered and in a sense trademarked by the famous and sadly late Hunter S. Thompson – that is a term often used to describe his work. Wright argues to the contrary and asserts that he does his utmost to focus on his stories’ subject sake rather than making himself a central and focal part of his writings.

Whilst this book is essentially made up of his previously published journalistic material, it is more than just a compilation as such. The lives of the people conveyed and portrayed in all of Wright’s material in Hella Nation are in a lot of ways inextricably tied to each other; be they anarchists, internet con artists, militant environmentalists, porn stars or neo-Nazi’s they all share a fundamental trait. That being one of disconnection and disenfranchisement from mainstream American society.

This broad intertwining makes reading this book a unique experience. Wright’s style of writing gives you a front seat view and gives you the opportunity to witness and experience firsthand the lives, viewpoints and actions of the various groups Wright spent time with or embedded himself in. This, coupled with his excellent prose, adds up to a rich reading experience. Which is impressive considering that the nature of some of Wright’s subjects are repulsive and utterly reprehensible (the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations group he profiles in Idaho is the most salient example of this) yet nonetheless interesting.

Other essays are engrossing because of their dark humour and coy subjects. Wright has described this book as a quasi autobiography of his career. Thus it begins with a lengthy introduction and follows up with his first essay that chronicles his early career working for Hustler. His experiences in the porn industry make up his first essay, simply and descriptively titled “Scenes from my Life in Porn.” It is oddly amusing given its obscene and depraved subject matter. The experiences Wright describes are obscene; however, the way he recollects them is strikingly amusing.

For example, he describes covering the set of a “the worlds largest gang bang” for Hustler as being intense. He states that watching so many men willfully engage themselves in pure acts of depravation and insanity stirred up a feeling inside of him that he had only previously experienced when in combat. The sheer comical ridiculousness of the whole industry is described beautifully when he outlines how the same porn-star strove to once again top herself not long after the “novelty” of the gang bang wore off by shooting flames from her anus. The depravity and frivolousness of the entire stunt is conveyed beautifully by Wright in his recollection, and you can’t do anything but laugh at how well he conveys the sheer and utter ridiculousness of the whole thing.

His profile of the con artist Seth Warshavsky, the young man who garnered considerable wealth through internet porn in the late 1990s, is strikingly brilliant in its overall evaluation and observation. Similar to the write-up on Warshavsky is Wright’s evaluation of his time with Pat Dollard; former liberal turned conservative Dollard became convinced that a conspiratorial liberal bias was prevalent in Hollywood and subsequently strove to become a conservative version of Michael Moore and went to Iraq to make pro-war documentaries. In an unbiased and professional manner and with masterful conveyance Wright documents Dollard’s evolution into a megalomaniac.

His coverage of the anti-WTO Seattle riots of 1999 is brilliant. Integrated with a group of young anarchists inspired by the likes of the infamous Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. The most prominent figure in this essay is a young anarchist who went by the name of Wingnut – whom read Kaczynski’s manifesto while squatting in a tree in protest of deforestation – who with his fellow anarchists devoted his life to striking at corporate business and franchises in a manner latently similar to the Project Mayhem plot line in the movie Fight Club.

Reiterating my opening point, Hella Nation isn’t just a random collection of old magazine essays. It is a wondrous collection of dispatches from the outer lying fringes of American society, from the proverbial diverging tributaries emanating from the recognizable mainstream. This is what makes it unique, and what makes it a very significant account of the varying characters who live on those outer fringes of society.

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