Going Gonzo on the US-Mexico Border
The reader should be mightily impressed by Johnny Rico’s Border Crosser: One Gringo’s Illicit Passage from Mexico into America—at least according to the book jacket, which claims that Rico “unearths more truths about [its] explosive subject than most traditional reporters could ever hope to”. The subject, as the title suggests, is the United States-Mexico border and the traffic in human beings and narcotics that takes place along it from Texas to California. What makes Rico an untraditional reporter is the fact that, in the mold of Hunter S. Thompson, he presents himself not as a detached observer of his subject matter but a participant in it (the book is loosely oriented around an account of Rico’s plan and attempt to cross into the US using the trails and methods of Mexican drug runners and “coyotes”, men who lead bands of Mexican migrants hoping to find work in America).
The bold claims for the importance and brilliance of Border Crosser would be forgivable if the work in any way managed to live up to them. After all, like Dizzy Dean said,“It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it”. Certainly, Rico does something in the book—primarily, he records his meanderings on both the US and Mexico sides of the border, his clumsy attempts to cross over, his encounters with individuals and groups who, by virtue of vocation or avocation, are deeply determined to keep the border porous or, alternately, make it impregnable—but the question remains of why it matters.
This is not to deny the political, social, and cultural significance of the border and its central place in the lives and minds of Mexicans and Americans alike. For while the line demarcating where the US ends and Mexico begins occasionally corresponds to physical and geographic realities—fences, rivers, ravines, and so on—it is really a locus for complex ideological controversies that lie at the heart of modern America. Rico seems to realize as much.
He writes in his foreword and the preface to the first part of the book that one of his aims in undertaking to write it was to understand the “politics of the border” and to consider its relation to “the fault lines of a divided nation.” In other words, in understanding the strange, liminal space of the border, we can come to understand America and its vexed and inherently contradictory relationship to Mexico—its insistence on decrying the country for being a source of drugs and cheap labor even as it, well, desperately wants drugs and cheap labor.
Rico’s ambition is admirable, but the book suffers from several major flaws. First, its prose is often simply terrible. Rico offers the occasional felicitous turn-of-phrase—he refers to border crossers as “furtive souls” at one point—but nearly every page is riddled with descriptions, similes, metaphors, and sentences that are clumsy or simply nonsensical. Here, for example, is how Rico describes his arrival in a camp of Minutemen (self-appointed scouts for illegal immigrants): And then, breaking like a shy dawn peering over and around the rocks—I came to Patriot Point, looming like a wrecked garage sale.”
Where to begin? So, Rico and the truck he is driving are like the dawn? But just before he has written that his truck lurched and rattled its way up the mountain, which would seem very different than the quiet and stealthy spreading of light that he subsequently evokes. And the final clause… beyond the confusion about the subject of the gerund (is the “I” or “Patriot Point” doing the “looming”?) what, exactly, is a wrecked garage sale?
Certainly we can understand that the Minutemen camp, like a garage sale, is full of old, worn out stuff or that this stuff is scattered in haphazard fashion, as if a tornado has swept through. Is this what Rico means by “wrecked”? Very possibly, but who knows for sure? And later, Rico writes of car trouble: “My first and only thought was to wonder how much this was going to cost me… My second thought was that we’d be lucky if we could make it to Altar.” At the risk of being pedantic, an “only” thought would suggest that no second thought was shortly to follow.
I belabor the point because this kind of sloppy writing—careless description, disregard for clarity, frequent lapses in intelligibility—are, I believe, related to the second and more important problem with the book: It never really grounds itself in its subject and the stories that might be told about it. This is so partly because for all of Rico’s professed ambition, the book often seems to have little investment in the border and those who attempt to cross it as anything other than the premise for a journalistic stunt that makes light of the real tribulations that immigrants experience. Indeed, in the epilogue to the book Rico claims, “I was done with the Mexican border. There were other borders to cross. And up next was a race across Europe, the Middle East, and the former Soviet bloc countries to Mongolia for a magazine”. We are, I think, supposed to take these lines as evidence that the subject matter and Rico’s experience have proven so complex and exhausting that a change of scene is just what the doctor, or in this case magazine editor, ordered for our journalist.
In truth, though, Rico often seems totally indifferent to the actual experience, the human drama, of crossing the border. If we are to believe him he spent at least some time in the company of individuals trying to cross the border with various motives and those who aid them, but we rarely hear from the firsthand. Instead, the people Rico encounters and the places he goes are always rendered as ancillary to his musings and self-indulgent speculation. After hearing an unconfirmed account of a family that died in the desert, Rico treats us to a lurid, nearly two page imaginary recreation of the journey and travails of this family, which culminates in this scenario: “Their demise was one of lingering procrastination, slow and steady as blood cells exploded and evaporated, losing viscosity and speed while each system of the body started to click offline, one after another toward death”.
No doubt this is meant to be a powerful and visceral depiction of physical suffering but the sense that it concerns human beings and their demise is completely lost in the clotted prose. But then again, we should remember that, in fact, Rico is not describing the death of human beings; he is describing a speculation born of a rumor of the death of human beings and, in so doing, giving himself an opportunity to wax clumsily lyrical and indulge in morbid fantasy.
Border Crosser, I should note, is not always disinterested in the fact that the border is the scene of actual, rather than imagined, human suffering —Rico notes, for example, that migrants are often subjected to terrible abuse by coyotes and that hundreds of women have been murdered in the border city of Juarez and there is not even the first clue as to why these things happen nor how to prevent them from continuing—but almost no sooner are these terrible realities acknowledged than Rico retreats to plotting his own crossing and rhapsodizing about his complete unpreparedness for the task (it is a not very funny running joke in Border Crosser that Rico is in terrible physical shape and doesn’t speak Spanish).
I realize that the critique I’m offering will be met with the response that the point of the kind of journalism evidenced in Border Crosser—I’ll use the term “gonzo” for the sake of convenience—is precisely not to offer a comprehensive, balanced, judicious account. Rather, its point is to mingle journalist and subject, real and imaginary, personal experience and historical circumstance in an attempt to get at a larger truth that mere reportage cannot begin to compass. This was, for Thompson at least, the point of the journalism he pioneered and to which Rico is deeply indebted. This approach assumes that so essentially bizarre and screwed up is the world—or at least the slice of it that the gonzo journalist examines—that he can only begin to render it responsibly by meeting it with a commensurate weirdness in himself.
The gonzo journalist is, paradoxically, a kind of innocent abroad—his cynicism, frequent inebriation and exhaustion, psychological instability, and self-absorption the means by which he allows his subject to make a real impression on himself and his readers in contrast to the false mastery and understanding that “straight” reporting with its insistence on objectivity and analysis insists on. While this journalism might be implicitly and deeply critical of aspects of its subject, it generally eschews overt moral condemnation in favor of grotesque description that allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Whatever one thinks of gonzo journalism generally Border Crosser is fair game for one of the major charges leveled against the genre; namely, that it exploits its subject matter for the sake of entertainment or titillation, that it feeds readers’ jaded appetites by providing them stories of ever more awful degradation. And, indeed, Rico—in an attempt to spice up his narrative—claims to have paid a group of immigrants gathered outside a Home Depot for accounts of their suffering, ‘the worse the better’—accounts that do, in fact, appear in the book. The sums he pays the men are, of course, ridiculously small.
This is not evidence of naïve insensitivity on Rico’s part; he is perfectly aware that the exchange is exploitative: “I was the decadent white buy paying poor Mexicans for their sob stories so that I could collect the private shames of people I didn’t know”. In other words, Rico’s subsequent collection of stories (if it indeed happened—it’s generally tough to tell what is fact and fiction here) is a calculated exercise in callousness, one intended, I believe, to get a rise out of the readers, to make them pause and think, “That’s awful” in the hope that they will reflect on their complicity in the hardship and suffering of immigrants. In other words, in the exchange Rico serves as a self-aware avatar of Americans’ exploitation of illegal immigrants, a knowing embodiment of Americans’ worst behaviors and values whose aim is to make us turn a critical eye on ourselves.
Or maybe this isn’t what he’s up to at all. Maybe the performance of the petty, solipsistic, insensitive American (and, in true gonzo fashion, it is very much a performance) is all there is in the end, a series of stunts that don’t reveal anything meaningful and don’t point to any greater truth. After all, Rico is done with the border and there’s little in Border Crosser to suggest that the reader should be anything but done with it when he or she closes the book. Which is fine.
More thoughtful, more careful—and, for these reasons, more daring—writers will discover and tell the important stories born of the strange and terrible territory that is the US-Mexican border. In the meantime, we can only hope that Rico’s own intrepidness and ambition will yield more thoughtful and substantial work than this.