BOOK REVIEW: 'Practice: Journalism, essays and criticism'

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Paul Burger looks at the latest work of an author inspired by Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism genre.

ON 20 FEBRUARY 2005, in the town of Woody Creek, Colorado USA, as one man among a population of 300 people, Hunter S. Thompson died as per his own words:

‘Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a ride!”’

With his last gasp, the founding father of gonzo journalism blasted a cavernous hole into literary history. Fortunately, demise of the erstwhile raconteur allowed a local Aussie talent to emerge from the shadows of the cavern. Ever since gonzo started working with the big typewriter overhead, our local boy has more than filled the boots vacated by HST.

In Practice: Journalism, essays and criticism, Guy Rundle, celebrated writer of many forms, takes us on a carnival ride through the literary genre. Pushing the limits of literary form, Rundle ranges over political matters, biography, literary criticism, social commentary and more. Briskly moving through nine broad categories, these lively pieces cover a wide range of subjects with a goodly dose of gonzoism.

Previous reviews of this book and Rundle’s staggering body of work kill any possibility of expressing praise without resort to cliché. Biting wit, razor-sharp puns, outrageous wordplay, devilish caricatures, probing social commentary, deep human compassion are all traits that found Rundle’s reputation as a genuine thinker and master writer. But what’s the point of recycled commendations; why pile medals one on top of another if we lose sight of the man? With a stellar career tucked into his hip pocket and a glass cabinet filled with literary silverware, Rundle doesn’t deserve yet another pat review.

In the opening two sections, Rundle takes us to recent campaign launches of major political parties. There we meet loyal members of the public and see, in unfamiliar ways, domestic powerbrokers and recent international events that have shaped our world. Defamiliarised, Rundle’s political portraits offer entertaining glimpses into the obscure world of public affairs.

In the section ‘Cities, memories and night shifts’ we come face-to-face with one of Rundle’s innovations — gonzo descriptions of people and places. These pieces are not one-dimensional descriptors. Their subjects serve as vehicles that carry us through the history that once unfolded around them. Such human pieces reveal Rundle’s ability to unpack seemingly insignificant events into countless layers of significance strung together in elaborate narrative plots.

But all is not light-hearted banter. The section called ‘Into the breach’ exposes Rundle’s analytical mind. Seen but not heard, gonzo cheers from the sideline as Rundle chases down the meaning of some modern incarnations of the political tradition that emboldens his unique brand of radicalism. Critiquing dissident events, probing historical contexts, cutting through with irony, we catch glimpses of the man behind the writer behind the mask of gonzo.

But fear not, comic relief is near to hand. Gonzo portraiture rises like the Loch Ness monster. Unexpected, out-of-the-blue mist, from nowhere we meet five Australian celebrities. Celebrities? Robert Hughes, Bob Ellis, David Williamson, John Howard and John Clarke. Do they qualify as celebrities? Never mind, each piece oozes satire and defies all genre conventions.

David Williamson, portrayed in a play that features him as himself waxing philosophically with his subconscious self on the significance of his own contribution to Australian theatre. In a gonzoid obituary, John Clarke, the great Aussie satirist meets St Peter in the pre-admission interview room at the gates of heaven and justifies his admission into the metaphysical, metaphorical, allegorical hall of fame.

In 45 pieces packed into 370 pages, Guy Rundle takes us places, shows us events and introduces a swag of people such as Glen Campbell, Kurt Cobain, Pauline Hanson, Malcolm Turnbull but never as mere description; always with an analytical purpose. Jam-packed, this volume fuses imagination, description, analysis, compassion and wit to produce a recusant denuding of current affairs and popular culture.

Dr Paul Burger is a social scientist and author. 

‘Practice: Journalism, essays and criticism’ is available from Black Inc. books for $32.99 (paperback) or $14.99 (eBook) RRP.

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