The funky jacket graphic – a hand gripping a pistol juxtaposed with a downward-swimming fish (piranha?) – caught my eye in passing Basement Books’ remaindered True Crime line-up. Not that True Crime interests me, but the title did (and the price, at less than 25% of the RRP). This travel memoir had strayed from its place – like its author, who isn’t dead after all. Far from it. Matthew Thompson’s style is so visceral, visual and vital that I’d hope it would jolt even the most moribund reader back to life.
The premise? Terminally bored with where he finds himself at 35, a journalist quits his day job on a big paper and, a month after his wife has popped out their first bub, leaves for Colombia where he plans to test his nerve, having identified it as the most dangerous country on Earth. A mutant spawn of the gonzo tradition (think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas watered down for a squeamish Oz audience), the narrative, which spans a few months in 2006, more or less hinges on three increasingly high-risk confrontations, the focus shifting from body to mind games to spirit (or psyche – our tour guide skims spiritual issues much as he sidesteps guerrillas; he knows better than to venture out of his depth).
For an entree, Thompson courts the physical danger of the corralejas, a ring in which hordes of youths torment a bull until it pursues them, goring and sometimes killing those not swift enough to elude it. Thompson’s whiteness attracts dire warnings and then a personal guide, though the latter scarcely makes his minutes in the ring any less frightening.
As Thompson’s quest for self-renewing sensation progresses, the stakes get raised. His interviewing the death-squad top boss over coffee, with no-one to hide behind, follows failed negotiations with some Cartagena locals who promise to take him to their paramilitary contacts if he buys (to kick off with) five grams of premium coke. Just when it starts to look like these jokers are setting him up to be kidnapped for sure, and his nose keeps clogging with blood clots from all the lines he’s snorted, Thompson provokes his government contacts into clinching the meeting he’s sought – a slight anticlimax because the warlord seems, well, ordinary.*
The third staged risk yields the book’s ultimate climax and accounts for its title. Thompson and a mate visit a mountain shaman to sample yagé,† a beyond-potent psychoactive substance used by, for instance, beat writers Burroughs and Ginsberg. Instead of preparing for the fabled visionary trip with recommended common-sense physical purification, Thompson arrives sleep-deprived and hung-over from an all-night spree and his first taste of crack cocaine. Might this toxicity figure in why the themes of the trip he describes (apart from the classic flight and dismemberment) don’t seem typical of those in anthropological studies I’ve read (some of which eerily echo some of my own spontaneous shamanic episodes)? Much of Thompson’s account dwells on the violence of his herking and the unprecedented shock to his nervous system. But hey, Thompson is no anthropologist. Subjective, not objective, reportage fuels the soul of gonzo. Some of the contents of his two trips (he went back for more as if sensing he’d missed something) may have been skipped or compressed into metaphor, if not repressed and forgotten (airport book buyers want a light read, not a tour of the collective unconscious). And irrespective of what went down in Thompson’s fevered psyche, his biochemical crisis inspired the book’s most creative writing. How to transmit nonverbal experience that defies the scope of words? Thompson, in evoking how his soul left his body, abandons first-person narration for third and mirrors thought fragments in chopped-up sentences. Then, as if his flight into a flash style has made him self-conscious, he shatters the solemn atmosphere with the sort of crass comedy befitting a man who’s just had the pants scared off him, literally.
Readers today have no excuse for naivety re creative nonfiction; not since the hoo-ha around James Frey’s or Norma Khouri’s inventiveness in A Million Little Pieces or Forbidden Love, respectively. But creativity in this genre applies to big stuff like dramatic structure no less than to details like dialogue – where should a popular writer draw the line? Thompson deftly maintains suspense with liberal foreshadowing, minimal temporal signposts and tight editing. But artifice is needed to make a book readable, let alone compelling. And that includes construction of the narrator and other suspects (even if names haven’t been changed). Thompson portrays himself as a disaffected middle-class misfit in search of his sidelined survival instincts, a primitive who craves a more vivid life – an effect he achieves partly by repetition, partly by omission. His book is subtitled: A Journey into the Heart of South America’s Most Dangerous Country (echoes of Fear and Loathing’s subtitle, A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream?), which has quite a different feel to, say, My Colombian Death: a thesis. Mateo, as most of his new friends call him, never reveals what’s really at stake – his Pan Macmillan Oz book deal and a creative arts doctorate. Acknowledgement of such financial and psychological safety nets, detracting from Thompson’s devil-may-care image, might limit his adventure-genre marketability (and clarify why he didn’t seek to sink beers with kidnap-happy guerrillas?). Readers spellbound by Thompson’s rebellion against bourgeois respectability don’t need the contradiction of his plans to dig himself deeper in to it.
For one so unimpressed with the First World’s aversion to discomfort (e.g. not wanting too much truth with its daily news), Thompson reports indulging in a good deal of consumption: beer, more beer offset by cocaine, entertainment such as an overpriced bullfight… Yet, how else to (1) research Colombian street life and (2) strike a chord with First World readers? After simpler conflicts – those which drive his book’s plot – are resolved and Thompson safely returned to his family reborn, having seen the most merciless light (the moral of this story more or less = count your blessings), much room remains for demanding, reflective readers to ponder the narrative’s gaps, Thompson’s rampant descriptive and rhetorical gifts notwithstanding.
* Is the line dividing those who’ve never killed from those with blood on their hands less clearly defined than the line between those who rationalise their violence and those so psychopathic that they don’t feel obliged to?
† A purgative decoction brewed from a woody jungle vine, yagé is more commonly known outside of South America by its Ecuadorian/Peruvian name, ayahuasca (Quechua: ‘vine of the dead’).