Several months ago, I received an email from Sundress Publications stating that my essay, “Off the Grid,” had been selected for their 2012 Best of the Net Anthology. I was somewhat confused because I had never entered such a contest but also overjoyed. It was a wonderful way to end 2012.

It turns out my essay was entered in the contest by the editor of Eclectica Magazine, Tom Dooley, to whom I am extremely grateful.

The good people at Sundress Publications receive thousands of entries every year from all across the Internet, and their tireless judges whittle those entries down to a few lucky winners. This year the judge in the nonfiction category was Pulitzer-finalist Lee Martin, a novelist and memoirist of wide-ranging talent.

I am honored to have my name associated with such a fine anthology, and I hope you take the time to read my essay.


Originally published in Boulder Weekly

November 2009

It has been more than four years since the literary powder keg known as Hunter S. Thompson exploded off this mortal coil with a defiant shotgun blast. He was a figure of great controversy who served as America’s national conscience during one of the most tumultuous periods in our country’s history, and he left behind an enormous collection of written material that will be studied and debated for generations to come.

However, like so many cultural supernovas of that era who burned hot and bright, Thompson’s artistic legacy is in danger of being overshadowed by his iconoclastic persona. If you ask the average fanboy about Thompson, he will most likely wax poetic about the trippy sensationalism of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or the satirical revulsion of “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” but he won’t know a damn thing about the larger canon. It’s a shame in more ways than one. Thompson was a gifted wordsmith and philosopher who represented everything that is pure about the American way of life. He was not just some stoner in a safari hat.

At the height of his career, it seemed that Thompson would never run out of energy or idealism. If there was an important event, he was there, wielding his typewriter like a sniper rifle, picking off the bad guys one at a time. In Thompson’s hands, words were more dangerous than bullets. A noun could pierce a blackened heart. A verb could blow a hole clean through a man’s head. He never slept. He never ate. In the public mind, he became a mythical figure, indestructible and omniscient, a cross between Billy the Kid, Prometheus and Superman. He ceased to be a human being and was transformed into an idol.

Of course, this is mostly bullshit. If Thompson possessed any extraordinary quality, it was that he was more human than the rest of us, a fact he made abundantly clear at the end of his life. Yes, he fought the good fight, but he battled almost entirely alone, a general without an army, and eventually the counterculture he loved so much traded in its revolutionary fantasy for a suburban wet dream.

Thompson spent the last years of his life in Woody Creek, Colo., on his “fortified compound,” Owl Farm, where naked women in rubber Nixon masks abounded and high-powered explosions often pierced the night. Although his own career had slowed to a crawl, Thompson frequently entertained young artists and writers who came to his house seeking inspiration.

One of those writers is a good friend and colleague of mine named Ben Corbett.

“I met Hunter after I wrote an article on him for Boulder Weekly,” said Corbett. “I talked to him on the phone, and he invited me out to Owl Farm. We hit it off really well. Over the years, I probably interviewed him about 12 or 14 times.”

Thompson and Corbett were starting to develop a personal friendship at the time of Thompson’s death. In fact, at the exact moment that Thompson committed suicide, Corbett was sitting at home composing a letter to the famous Gonzo journalist.

“It sounds strange, but I sensed that time was short,” said Corbett. “I just had this feeling that he wouldn’t be around much longer, and I should see him while he was still with us. I found out later that he died at the exact time I was writing the letter, down to the minute. It spooked me.”

At the time of his death, Thompson was working on a new book with editor/publisher Steve Crist. Corbett met Crist at a memorial service for Thompson at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome, the venue that served as campaign headquarters when Thompson ran for Aspen sheriff in 1970.

They hit it off, and Crist asked Corbett to contribute to Thompson’s final book, GONZO, which features a lifetime of Thompson’s personal photography, notes and memorabilia.

The new “Literary Edition” of GONZO hit the shelves recently, with an introduction by Johnny Depp and a biography by Corbett. It is a book about the man behind the legend, and it was created by the people who knew him best and loved him. GONZO attempts to peel back the layers of celebrity that haunted Thompson and return to the true meaning of his work. It reads like a final love letter to his friends and fans, a colorful diary of musings and pictures that originated from inside the man’s head. Appropriately, there are no page numbers in GONZO, and it ends with the quote, “It never got weird enough for me.”

I spent several years editing Corbett’s insane scribblings at Boulder Weekly, and I can’t think of a better person to write about Thompson’s legacy. They are kindred spirits — the same naive bravado, the same crooked smile.

Thompson and Corbett are my favorite type of people: clinically insane but with a lot of heart. If anyone can rescue Thompson’s image from the media cranks and Hollywood hacks, it’s Corbett and Crist. Of course, this book won’t do it, not really. The myth has grown too large, the memory hole too powerful. But GONZO will serve as a type of Rosetta Stone for the select few who really want to understand the man behind the mystique. It is an important cultural artifact.

“Hunter was a romantic deep down,” said Corbett.

“He really believed in the goodness of humanity. He valued things like truth and virtue. That’s what his readers should be focusing on. Hunter wanted to inspire people to fight for a better world. That’s his legacy.”

Sherman Alexie Interview

January 27, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly


I am a 14-year-old girl at a Justin Timberlake concert. I am wearing glitter nail polish and a T-shirt with the word “Juicy” pasted on it in puffy, pink letters. I am in love. When the music starts, my heart goes pitter-pat-pitter-pat, and I scream so loud that dogs in China begin to howl. People look at me strangely, but I don’t care because I am a 14-year-old girl at a Justin Timberlake concert…

I know it’s not exactly professional, but this is how I feel about interviewing Sherman Alexie. I want to giggle and invite him to my house for a sleepover.

Book critics are not supposed to admit we have personal reactions to prose. We are just literate androids that consume novels like flavorless bowls of oatmeal and then spew out dispassionate, semi-witty quips about the authors who write them. But I can’t help it — I love books, and I love the people who write the books I love. If you want to read a cold, impartial review by some priggish academic, pick up the New Yorker. I’m a fan.

Alexie’s latest novel, Flight, is a short, tender satire about a young American Indian/Irish orphan named Zits who has spent the better part of his 15 years bouncing back and forth from foster homes to juvenile detention in Seattle. He has been scarred — emotionally and dermatologically — by life.

On one of his visits to juvy, Zits meets a handsome anarchist named Justice who inundates the angsty American Indian with left-wing revolutionary dogma. Justice supplies Zits with an amoral philosophy and a pair of handguns. The journey ends in a public massacre.

However, just as the brain matter begins to fly, Zits is transported by postmodern powers through time and space into the body of a white FBI agent in 1975. The rest of the novel follows poor Zits as he jumps back and forth through history witnessing (and sometimes participating in) horrible acts of violence.

In another writer’s hands, this could be a really corny book. But as always, Alexie deftly imbues his characters with equal parts cynicism and compassion to form a sophisticated, modern parable. It’s a bit like Catcher in the Rye meets Gunsmoke meets Quantum Leap.

I spoke with Alexie about his novel while he was doing laundry at his house. (His favorite red shirt was recently stained during a book tour.) He greeted me kindly with his soft reservation accent and then proceeded to shatter all of my political and social opinions one by one.

Boulder Weekly: There’s a scene in your novel where the main character goes on a public shooting spree. Did the events at Virginia Tech change the way people perceived that narrative?

Sherman Alexie: It’s interesting. I think there has been some reaction to it but not a whole bunch. I don’t think people have a way of talking about it. Nobody seems to have connected [the shootings at Virginia Tech] to the fact that we’ve been in a war that’s lasted longer than World War II. We’ve been watching our president’s amorality for years. How can people not think those amoral decisions are going to influence sociopaths like this kid?

BW: Were these all themes you were thinking about while writing this book?

SA: Yeah, I was trying to explain war and talk about it in one way or another.

BW: How do you feel about the way this book has been received so far?

SA: It’s about what I expected. It’s about 60 percent positive and 40 percent negative. I knew there would be an elitist literary reaction to the time travel factor — that I would dare to have a genre element.

BW: Some critics thought it was strange that Flight was not published as a hardback.

SA: Actually, we did that for a number of reasons. There are so many returns of hardcovers that it’s an economic model that’s broken for most writers. So I did this to try to remove some of the stigma from publishing a paperback original. I took a lower advance, and we published in paperback to send a message: This is the way [writers] are going to be more successful. It’s also the way more first-time and experimental writers will get published.

BW: But not everyone saw it that way?

SA: This is the first time I’ve gone public with the idea — with the Boulder Weekly. Part of it is that I’m responding to a review in the Rocky Mountain News by Jenny Shank. She thought Black Cat (Flight‘s publisher) hated the book, and publishing a paperback original was like a studio not allowing a movie to be reviewed before its release. It was shocking to me that someone with very little experience in publishing like Jenny Shank would even have a guess at that. The arrogance was astonishing. So I’m telling the Boulder Weekly all this so you guys can hammer on your competitor, the Rocky Mountain Fucking News.

BW: We definitely will.

SA: Good.

BW: I’ve heard that you don’t actually like to write novels.

SA: It’s not that I don’t like them. It’s just not my natural form, so it takes a lot more effort.

BW: Do you feel poetry is your natural form?

SA: Yeah, it’s still what I write the most. I’m always working on a poem.

BW: What do you feel is the state of poetry in America right now?

SA: Poetry has always been, is now, and will always be mostly ignored. But that’s only in its most literary incarnations. I hear poetry whenever I turn on the radio. Eminem is a better poet than just about everybody. He’s better than Billy Collins; he’s better than Richard Wilbur; he’s better than me. “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” is better than Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” People’s elitist notions of what poetry is prevents them from seeing that it’s everywhere all the time.

BW: You surprise a lot of people with your views. Quite a while back, Boulder Weekly published a review of the movie Narnia, and you wrote a letter to the editor defending Christians. I think that surprised some of our readers.

SA: Well, I am a Christian. I’m a Catholic. The reflexive, anti-Christian thinking in that particular review was just lazy. It was as shallow as any attack by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. We liberals pretend to be smarter, but we’re not.

BW: Do you think America is filled with reactionary junkies?

SA: Yeah, and I’m a born-again gray-issues guy. I was fairly fundamental before 9/11, but that morning everything changed. What really got me pissed was Ward Churchill blaming the victims, saying that the people in the Trade Towers deserved their deaths. He’s just an evil bastard, and those are evil words, but what killed me was people’s rush to defend him. My defense would have been: “Yeah, he has a right to say what he wants, but he’s completely wrong, and it’s evil.” The problem for me with liberals is that we’ve abdicated our moral responsibility to the universe.

BW: Do you have any idea where we lost that?

SA: Looking back, I think it was when white liberals abdicated the Christian church. They lost their tribal identity. Their religion became less about tribe and justice and more about self-help. Facetiously speaking, I think yoga fucked us.

BW: Do you think there’s a liberal politician out there who would be a good president?

SA: The guy who won in 2000: Al Gore. I’m still pissed at the Nader-ites for that one. Talk about fundamentalism. And I’m sure Boulder voted for Nader about 90 percent. Dumbfucks. (Editor’s Note: Actually, it was 20 percent, Sherman.)

BW: Have you ever been to Boulder before?

SA: Many times.

BW: Do heads explode when you come here?

SA: Generally, yeah. But I get away with so much because I’m an Indian. Everybody feels like shit in the presence of an Indian. I get invited to speak at all sorts of stuff: Christian conferences, right-winger events, diversity business things. People just like to be beaten up by an Indian. I’ve made a lucrative living pounding on the left and right white people of America.

BW: That’s so fantastic that I don’t have any words for it.

SA: I know. And recently, I’ve been getting grief from people because I’ve become an optimist. I love my country, and people have such problems with that.

BW: You’re a patriot?

SA: Well, I have to speak autobiographically. I live in a country where a reservation Indian boy, whose parents didn’t go to college, who used an outhouse until he was 7, is now one of the most published and awarded writers in the country. That does not happen anywhere else.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

June 2008

When I was 26 years old, I decided to write the great American novel, and so I moved to Prague. My plan was to grow a beard, purchase a pipe and hang out in coffee shops all day, where I would sit in dark corners and compose stories on an old-timey typewriter, tat-a-tat-tat-tat, about gut-wrenching topics such as war, poverty, death and many other subjects that I didn’t really know anything about. My favorite writers at that time were the kind of hyper-masculine dudes who could knock out a grizzly bear with their giant schlongs and then recite an evocative poem about it. Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein. I wanted to be tough. I wanted to be introspective. I wanted to have sex with leggy, Eastern European women named Svetlana or Dixie, who would appreciate my brooding intellectual nature and make me pancakes.

The book started off strong — terse dialogue, scintillating romance, intense metaphors involving sunsets and bullfighters — but I made one fatal mistake: I based the main character on myself.

Somewhere in the middle of chapter six, the protagonist inexplicably began smoking pot, eating Doritos and watching reruns of Friends. He didn’t want to pursue his love interest or participate in any of the clever plot twists that I had so painstakingly outlined for him in a large, yellow notebook. Instead, he spent his days listening to Guns N’ Roses albums and engaging in pointless conversations about the homoerotic relationship between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in Rocky III. My protagonist was a lazy, good-for-nothing bastard, and I ended up killing him in chapter seven by dropping a piano on his head. Needless to say, the book was never published.

This is when I started drinking heavily and hanging out with off-duty prostitutes.

There was a decrepit, little bar next to my apartment building and I would sit there all night and drink Pilsner and eat these horribly addictive snacks that tasted like peanut butter-flavored Styrofoam and generally just feel sorry for myself. I lived smack dab in the middle of the city, about two blocks from Wenceslas Square, where dozens of prostitutes lined the streets after dark, chomping on giant wads of chewing gum and propositioning male tourists.

Prostitution is not exactly legal in Prague, but the police turn a blind eye, primarily because the brothel owners pay them to remain blissfully ignorant. In many ways, Prague is the European equivalent of Las Vegas for uptight, British blowhards who take “business trips” to the Czech capital on the weekends and spend their time drunkenly stumbling around the cobblestone streets in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, shouting at the top of their lungs and paying attractive women to give them handjobs in the park.

I have always had a fascination with prostitutes. In fact, I’m intrigued by any kind of sexual deviance. My father is a fundamentalist preacher, and when I was growing up, he basically taught me that if I so much as looked at a lady of the night, my wiener would fall off, and it would then be eaten by a pack of ravenous wolverines. This is why I have always been nervous around prostitutes. And wolverines.

At midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends, some of the more “seasoned” prostitutes would trickle in for a few minutes of R&R. At first, they thought I was a possible john, and they propositioned me with compelling pick-up lines like, “Sex? Yes?” However, after realizing that I was far too uptight (and too cheap) to pay for their carnal carnival rides, their lines changed to, “Beer? Yes?”

My favorite prostitute was an elderly matron named Meg. (That wasn’t her real name, of course. Like strippers and professional wrestlers, prostitutes adopt an alter ego while they’re on the job. Meg’s real name was one of those grandiose Slavic concoctions that, when pronounced properly, sounds not unlike a musk ox coughing up a lung. I think it was Kunderákäfka?vejkérton. Or something like that.)

Meg was one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met. She could keep an audience captivated for hours with tales about her childhood in Slovakia and/or her legions of abusive ex-boyfriends and/or her dog, Santa. I have no idea how much money I spent on beer during the course of our conversations, but it was certainly a lot less than the cost of an MFA program.

When my savings finally ran out and it was time for me to go home, I asked Meg how I could become a great storyteller. She belched loudly and said, “Stop being so boring.”

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