The Gonzo Classic That Wasn't ?
- By Owen Matthews
- Jun. 24 2000 00:00
The eXile is, in the words of its editors, "a paper for paranoid depressives with very twisted enthusiasms," written by "a couple of suburban American yo-yos with too much time on their hands" f or, more specifically, by Matt Taibbi, "a self-hating geek" who used to suffer from "panic attacks at college keg parties" and Mark Ames, a "suburban nihilist" who frequently used "to go for an entire year without sex." Now, in the words of the back-page blurb, the eXile's editors have written a book "in the tradition of Gonzo journalists like Hunter S. Thompson" about their experiences in Russia.
The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia is the story of how Ames and Taibbi took over the floundering and unfunny Living Here (conceived and reluctantly edited by myself, in between my day job at The Moscow Times) and turned it into the eXile, the savage, caustically witty and thoroughly sick f I mean that as a compliment f alternative biweekly.
The trouble is, unlike their often brilliant paper, the book is bad. Not as in bad-assed or shocking; just bad. They screwed up, and it's a damn shame. It should have been a classic f even I, knowing I was going to end up the butt of many feeble lampoons, was rooting for it to be a scorching, no-holds-barred Gonzo sensation. After all, they couldn't have asked for better material. A ringside seat at the implosion of a great empire, a society spinning out of control into a total moral vacuum, a cast of characters so fantastically grotesque even Gogol couldn't have invented them. But they lost it f lost it through a mixture of vanity and cowardice. They got to the edge and pulled back. Or, as their alleged role model Hunter Thompson put it: "The edge. ? The only people who know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others ? are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later."
Unfortunately, Ames and Taibbi chose Later. There are moments f like when Ames describes threatening to kill a pregnant girlfriend if she doesn't have an abortion, or when he picks up a young ex-convict chick who blew a taxi driver to get a ride from the airport and tells Ames how she lesbian-raped fellow inmates in a German jail f where the book hits those extreme grace notes the subject demands. In other words, the drug binges, the violence, the bloated hubris, the cynicism, the promiscuity f all the gore of the debauched mid-'90s in Moscow. It's in there, if you look hard enough. But disappointingly, much of the book, which is liberally interspersed with eXile clippings, ends up being about the newspaper's petty business disputes, its lame and unfunny practical jokes (such as arranging speaking engagements for the deceased Richard Nixon), and, most boringly, about Taibbi's various crusades to expose the corruption of the so-called "young reformers," the venality of USAID and the screwups of Moscow's press corps.
In fact, Taibbi puts his finger on the book's main flaw early on, during the two-chapter-long distinctly un-epic struggle between the publisher of Living Here, Manfred Witteman, and Ames that led to the creation of the breakaway eXile: "It was the sort of slimy, low-rent intrigue you'd find in a Bolshevik cell meeting circa 1909 f a scandal which was totally meaningless except in the context of the bloated egos of the lazy 20-something 'revolutionaries' involved." Dead right f no one gives a damn, not even me, and I was involved in it. Too much of the book is devoted to what Ames rightly identifies as "a petty story ? the culmination of a lot of lame shit" f in other words, the story of "why two capable, well-educated Americans [were] haggling over play raises in what was essentially a play business."
The problem is that only one of the writers f Ames f actually has what it takes to write a great autobiographical book about Russia. Ames, who writes four of the book's eight chapters, has at least got a sufficiently twisted personality to make his navel-gazing interesting: towering insecurity, paranoia that makes a Panzer division look weak-willed and ideologically underpowered, egomania, psychopathic sexual deviancy and breathtaking misanthropy. To his credit, he is brutally honest about his faults. One of the more hilarious examples is how he illustrates his incredible insecurity about women by publishing a full-page photo of the one cute girl he ever slept with, as well as boasting about how he failed to get laid during his first nine months in Russia. "It wasn't my fault, the failure," Ames writes. "As the evidence shows, it was America's fault."
Taibbi, on the other hand, is a great reporter, and his "Let Them eat Coal" piece from Vorkuta stands out as some of the best reportage to come out of the financial crisis of 1998-99. But none of that comes across in the book. Instead, the book swings hopelessly between angst biography, the chronicles of petty squabbles, a few bits of potted Russian politics, dumb practical jokes and bragging about sex and drugs. The serious/sick balance somehow works in the paper f small doses, maybe f but it fails in the book. Taibbi's attempts to get "serious" and expose the Western press corps as lazy liars and the reformers as hypocritical thieves just falls flat f particularly three years after the event. Good points, wrong forum. My advice: ditch the boring eXile story and Taibbi's pious revelations, stick to Ames' fascinatingly disgusting Celine script.
In any case, the eXile's self-righteous, Serpico-style whistle-blower, fearless-investigative-reporting shtick is just a pose. For one, they're just inaccurate f a grave mistake when you're setting yourself up as the arbiter of journalistic ethics. Taibbi alleges, for instance, that a reporter at The Moscow Times wrote a story full of invented quotes that cited "an Ivanov, a Petrov and a Sidorov" (the Russian equivalent of Smith, Jones and Brown). But it doesn't exist f check the MT archives. Also, the eXile chose their targets with care. They went after reformers, provincial administrations, corrupt American businessmen and aid honchos, but did the eXile ever take on the big boys like Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, someone who actually might be in a position to retaliate? Uh-uh. And when Russia launched its second, fantastically brutal war in Chechnya, did the eXile write anything about Putin's Goebbels-style clampdown on the press? Don't think so. Instead, while my colleagues and I were documenting the government's savage abuse of power in Chechnya, Taibbi sat in his Moscow apartment writing journalism school 101 deconstructions of our stories. It's not as though he didn't have the opportunity. I saw Taibbi this spring when he was demonstrating his contempt for authority by throwing televisions against a statue of Karl Marx (and helping to carefully clear up the debris afterward) and offered to take him with me on my next trip to Chechnya. "Uh, no thanks, man," said Taibbi, the journalist that supposedly tells the story the Western press is too afraid to cover. "That's not our thing."
It's that lack of balls that is most disappointing. Why, for instance, keep up the fiction that "Johnny Chen," the eXile's controversial pseudonymous club reviewer, actually exists? "Johnny Chen" is f surprise, surprise f Mark Ames. I know because I was present during many of Chen-Ames' sordid adventures, which were subsequently written up to the horror of the eXile's more straightlaced readers. I can only assume that Ames f wacky, speed-guzzling, on-the-edge Ames f couldn't face owning up to an infamous (and hilarious) piece describing how he rapes a devushka he drags out of a club and into his apartment.
One of the leitmotifs of the eXile book is the aggressive banality of the Moscow expatriate community. Ames constantly berates the expat mediocrities who came to Russia and found themselves far more successful than they ever could have been back home. But f let's face it f that logic cuts both ways, as they themselves point out: "What eventually lifted the eXile above the level of an inspirational tale for a slacker group therapy session was that our little effort at nerd redemption was taking place ? alongside one of the most violent periods of social change in this half of the century."
No Russia, no 15 minutes of fame for a paper that "started as the extension of a common high-school hang-up" and its "unemployed, barely published, aging zero" editors. Which makes them f classic expats. In fact, for all their claims to hate Gen-X liberal culture, the eXile is, in fact, a pure Gen-X book, a typical "voyage of self-discovery" about how two angry nerds discover sex, drugs and their inner selves by rebelling against suburban values. Heard this somewhere before?
One of the saddest things about the book is the authors' obsession with proving they've hit the big time. Stanford professor Michael McFaul actually sent them some e-mails! Eduard Limonov, the fascist writer, called Ames his friend! New Yorker editor David Remnick actually heard of a prank they played by pretending to be him! And, wow, "proof that the eXile 'mattered'" f loony right-wing think-tank deputy head J. Michael Waller told them to "keep up the good work."
The eXile is probably destined to become a minor hit among the kind of alterno-slackers Ames and Taibbi claim to hate but actually are. But as the Russia the eXile used to describe f Ames' "paradigm" f fades away into history, it's a crying shame that the eXile team fumbled the chance to write the definitive account of one of the most convulsive and epically decadent periods of the 20th century. The eXile is not the promised Gonzo romp through the wild East. It is, as Taibbi writes, "something else, something much more private and sad."
"The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia," by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi. Foreword by Eduard Limonov. 238 pages. Paperback. Grove Press. $16.
Owen Matthews writes for Newsweek.