Gonzo Journalism’s New Heir

Posted February 8, 2010 at 4:31pm

The first thing you’ll notice about Matt Labash’s first book — that is, apart from the cartoonish scowl of a fly-fishing Dick Cheney flanked by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Sharpton and Donald Trump’s ridiculous quiff — is the quote by P.J. O’Rourke situated neatly atop the jacket: Labash “is Hunter S. Thompson on acid.” Wait, wasn’t Thompson already on acid? Never mind.

You’ll be willing to overlook the faux pas because ever since Professor Gonzo took his own life in 2005 (and to a large extent, post-1970s, when his flame of creativity ceased to burn bright), the world has been devoid of an heir apparent, one able to evoke Thompson’s lively blend of egocentric reporting and cutting political satire. And the more acid the better. With “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures With Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen and Jewish Cowboys,” Labash makes a worthy case for entry into the canon of gonzo journalism elites.

The book is a collection of Labash articles written for the Weekly Standard, William Kristol’s neoconservative news magazine. Whether profiling the forlorn cities of Detroit and New Orleans, extolling the virtues of dodgeball or fly-fishing with then-Vice President Dick Cheney (as the book’s title denotes), Labash has a keen eye for picking out the riotous details that usually go overlooked in the daily grind of straight news reporting.

Labash is at his best in the company of rogues. He accedes as much in his profile of Sharpton, writing, “While many reporters like to cover frontrunner campaigns, I’ve always favored no-hopers. Losers are more vulnerable, accessible, and desperate, meaning they reveal rather than conceal.”

And Labash taps his subjects for all they’re worth. He has the gift, it seems, of endearing himself to his interviewees enough to make them candidly comfortable. Then again, sometimes, as with “political hitman” Roger Stone, Labash just tries to get them drunk, a trick Stone must have been accustomed to because he, in turn, bribes the waiter to bring him water with an olive in a martini glass. But whatever the method, it works. Labash uncovers rare glimpses into the actual humanity of the public personas whose image and message are usually so tightly controlled. Labash scored the rare interview with Cheney because the then-VP wanted to see what journalist had the “cojones” to write off a fishing trip as a business expense. Labash actually manages to humanize “Darth Vader.” Labash also gets to the nucleus of former Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman’s psyche, writing that he “has a heart like a lion.” Sometimes the revelations are more literal. Disgraced former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry actually shows Labash his nipple when trying to locate an old scar.

The latter article earned Labash a mention in New York Times columnist David Brooks’ annual compilation of the best magazine articles of the year, the Sidney Awards. Labash, according to Brooks, “is consistently one of the best magazine writers in the country.”

This is absolutely true. Each of Labash’s articles is a consuming, self-contained narrative, initiated with an irresistible lead and tied off at the end with a pertinent zinger. He calls Canadians “a docile, Zamboni-driving people who subsist on seal casserole and Molson.” He is such a good writer that you’ll want to read the book’s acknowledgements just to make sure you don’t miss a good Tucker Carlson joke. (The two are best pals.)

Sure, you could just as easily cruise WeeklyStandard.com and unearth all the same articles contained in this book. But you should buy it. And not just because, as the author offers in his online advice column, “The first 5,000 customers will be sent pictures of [fellow Daily Caller blogger] Jim Treacher’s feet.” You should buy this book because maybe, if it sells well, Labash will be prompted to do what he has so far shirked and dedicate a full 300 pages of his hilarious prose to one subject. No ill could come of that.