Friday, April 20, 2018

Me In Particular: The Reappearance of Oscar Z. Acosta

Oscar Z. Acosta, as photographed by Annie Leibovitz.

In his roughly 39 years of life, Oscar Zeta Acosta recreated himself more than once. From a typical barrio kid growing up in the working-class Mexican-American community of Riverbank, California, he became a clarinetist in the US Air Force marching band; a Baptist missionary in the jungles of Panama; a creative writing student in San Francisco, mentored by famed baseball novelist Mark Harris; a law-school graduate and member of the California bar; and a Legal Aid Society advocate for the impoverished of East Oakland. And that only takes him up to the beginning of his first book, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972), which ends with his transformation into a budding Chicano militant. 

Most of us have known Acosta only as “Dr. Gonzo,” the fire-breathing, drug-scarfing, knife-wielding sidekick created by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), and portrayed by Benicio del Toro in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film of that book. Yet Acosta deserves to be remembered as more than a featured player in the Thompson legend; he left a legacy both historically important and all his own. That legacy is the subject of Phillip Rodriguez’s The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo, an hour-long documentary which debuted last month on PBS as part of the VOCES series on Latino arts and culture. The film is a mishmash, frankly imaginative and affably unpretentious, in which the skimpy visual evidence of Acosta’s life (mostly candid photos and news clips) is fleshed out with scripted reenactments played in period costume against sets that suggest workshop theater. The first-person narration is derived from Acosta’s two books, and aside from the compelling footage of the subject addressing protest rallies or courthouse cameras, the documentary’s chief value is that it inspires – in a way that Thompson’s portraiture never did – a curiosity to read the man’s own words.

That’s not to say that Acosta’s story is separable from Thompson’s, or that we should even try to separate them. They recognized each other as brothers from the moment of their first, accidental meeting in a bar in Alpine, Colorado, in June 1967. Both had a taste and a tolerance for substance and other abuse; both were given to psychotic sprees and dangerous games; both were men of acute intellect and subtle perception who also had weaknesses for weapons and destruction. Thompson crafted the popular cartoon of Acosta as Gonzo, but he also wrote, in two long pieces, relatively sober, up-close observations of the actual man. “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” (1971) takes off from the August 1970 death of Mexican-American journalist Rubén Salazar, who in the midst of a riot following a Chicano march against the Vietnam War was killed, perhaps assassinated, with a tear-gas bomb fired by an LA County Sheriff’s deputy. “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” (1977) is Thompson’s enraged valedictory on the contradictions of Acosta, as well as a meditation on his mysterious (and presumably fatal) disappearance, somewhere near Mazatlán, Mexico, in 1974. Excerpts from the latter also provided the introduction for the 1989 reprintings of both Brown Buffalo and its sequel, The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973).

The two outlaws loved, vilified, and exploited each other. For example: though Acosta had always wanted to be a writer, he’d been unable to publish anything. Then Fear and Loathing, excerpts of which had appeared in Rolling Stone, was on the verge of coming out as a book; at the last moment, incensed at being fictionalized as "a 300-pound Samoan," he threatened legal action unless his real name and image were emblazoned on the dust jacket – a grab for glory that also helped him leverage a contract with Straight Arrow Books, Rolling Stone's publishing arm. The relationship, as we piece it together from both sides, was one of diabolical coevals, macho hooligans for whom slurs and abuse were forms of affectionate address. As unhindered as Thompson is in making Dr. Gonzo a drug-driven grotesque, he is that unsentimental in calling Acosta, many years later, “a dangerous thug” and “rotten fat spic.” As for Acosta, he sees at once that Thompson is trouble: “The devil was setting me up for this confrontation with the tall, baldheaded hillbilly from Tennessee.” (Thompson was from Kentucky, but whatever.) Clearly, much of their mutual attraction lay in each man’s grim sense that he was sitting on a tinder box; but it’s fun to realize, reading them in tandem, that each viewed the other as the explosion waiting to happen. 

Jeff Harms as Hunter S. Thompson (left) and Jesse Celedon as Oscar Acosta (right) on the set of The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo. (Photo: Rafael Cardenas)

It’s difficult to know, without biographical exacts, how influential Fear and Loathing was on Brown Buffalo – that is, how much of Thompson’s manuscript Acosta read while writing his own. The evidence of the page, however, suggests the influence was profound, whether it came through actual reading or simple osmosis. Like Thompson’s book, albeit from a very different angle, Acosta’s centers on a figure who is gripped by both cellular self-doubt and tendencies to grandiosity, while trying to figure out who he is as an individual and where he fits as an American. Brown Buffalo has many flamboyant descriptions of acid trips and other derangements, and some of the imagery is just as disgustingly hallucinogenic as anything in Thompson: “She takes my huge brown head ready for mounting and holds it in her arms like the Madonna. She puts her mouth full of emerald lips over my nose. She sucks on it, to save my life. My green snot puffs her face and fills it up like a carnival balloon. With her eyes against mine, she sucks and sucks until finally my head collapses like a rubber ball stuck with a dart.” 

Except for its flashbacks to barrio boyhood and raw youth, Brown Buffalo covers the manic months between July 1, 1967, the day Acosta quits the Legal Aid Society, and January 1968, when he travels from Juarez to Los Angeles to see what the embryonic Chicano or “Brown Power” movement is all about. The Revolt of the Cockroach People picks up on Christmas Eve, 1969, with Chicano protesters – “the cockroach people” – descending on St. Basil’s, a megachurch serving the wealthy Catholics of Beverly Hills; from this comes the trial of the “St. Basil 13,” with Acosta as attorney for the accused. The book is about his rediscovery of his lawyerly vocation; his partial or complete victories in defense of this and other groups charged with rioting in the East LA protests of 1969-70; and his rising profile as a militant attorney. 

Cockroach People, as its title indicates, is less personal and impressionistic than Brown Buffalo, more communitarian and issue-oriented. It is a political book – still wild and crazy, but focused on group chaos rather than private mania. Acosta equates the oppression of the Chicanos to the bombing of “cockroaches in far-off villages in Vietnam”; in a black-comic passage, he exhumes for investigation the corpse of a young Chicano who had died “under mysterious circumstances” while in police custody. Rubén Salazar appears, under the pseudonym “Roland Zanzibar”; LA County Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, an Acosta nemesis, is tauntingly renamed “Peter Peaches.” (On the other hand, such notables as actor Anthony Quinn, Charles Manson trial judge Charles Older, and LA County coroner Thomas Noguchi are identified by their real names. This free interplay of factual and fictional naming is one of several reasons it doesn’t quite satisfy to call Acosta’s books either “novels” or “memoirs.”) Acosta seeks to incorporate the cultural memory he had lost in his earlier life, and which the action of Brown Buffalo seemed to lead him back to: throughout the narrative, in mute contrast to Los Angeles, “the most detestable city on earth,” is the ideal of Aztlan, “the original homeland of the aztecas” – the land comprising Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California, which Mexico had ceded to the US in the Mexican-American War. Despite his ethnic awakening and political savvy, Acosta remains too much the renegade to buy completely into any social program or radical doctrine. “Politically I believe in absolutely nothing,” he claims. “I have no ideology. I’ve been an outlaw out of practical necessity.” 

That renegade aspect also means that Acosta’s books require no small allowance from today’s reader. For one thing, they are rank with racial slurs: every ethnic group is branded at multiple points with its traditional epithet – by the author himself, not by some interloping bigot. Acosta also exemplifies the sexism and homophobia that were rampant in the liberation movements of the sixties, as well as in the culture at large. He’s not exactly a chauvinist – he doesn’t mind women taking a prominent role in the struggle – but his sexism is on the far side of piggery. Women he finds attractive are described with some tenderness, but at least half of all women are “broads.” The regard he pays any given woman is opportunistic, keyed largely to her perceived sexual availability, and his lechery only increases as the books go on – probably because he’s getting laid more often. Virtually every fourth man he encounters is marked down as a “fag,” or at least “faggoty-assed,” whether for his apparent gayness or for some softness, slyness, sensitivity, or other repugnant unmanliness. To what degree any of this is mitigated by Acosta’s self-loathing and self-lacerating is for each reader to decide; my choice, as I gag, is to place him in a continuum of enlightenment, as I do the male abolitionists who, a century earlier, had denounced slavery and disenfranchisement while considering their wives property and denying them the vote.  

But if Acosta embodied many of the limits of his culture, his time, and his gender, he mostly embodied his own gross, riotous, exasperating, multitudinous self. Where Cockroach People is an account of one man’s role in a movement, a militant’s curriculum vitae, Brown Buffalo is the record – tight, vivid, often very funny, sometimes frightening – of a mind in meltdown, caught between the need to isolate and the need to identify. Acosta struggles to locate his niche in sixties America, conscious every second that he is of the wrong color, the wrong size, the wrong mind. Searching blindly for his kindred, he rejects the hippies and beatniks of San Francisco, whose shrine-like City Lights Bookstore he calls “a hangout for sniveling intellectuals and runaway teenyboppers out for a score.” Most of his friends are Caucasian fringe-dwellers, druggies, drunks – people just as discombobulated as himself, if less obviously unhappy about it. Finding the traditional Mexican music of his parents’ generation “corny,” he prefers the Anglo pop of the moment. (He loves Dylan, embraces the Beatles’ “Help!” as a personal theme song, and, in a delightful running joke, bumps into Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” wherever he goes, growing increasingly paranoid behind its images of virgins, cartwheels, and seasickness.) Finally he departs the Bay Area for the mountainous Inner West, specifically Ketchum, Idaho, where he meets the regulars at Ernest Hemingway’s local bar and, in an oddly moving passage, visits the suicidal writer’s grave. Not long after, he is at the Daisy Duck saloon in Colorado, on time for his devil’s appointment with “Karl King” – real name, Hunter S. Thompson. 

The real Thompson and Acosta, photographed in Las Vegas in 1971. (Photo: Getty Images)

Brown Buffalo is a livid confrontation with what Acosta calls “the beast in my wounded, rotting brain.” The brain – only sporadically tamped down by Stelazine, an antipsychotic – generates a constant phantom dialogue with the Jewish psychiatrist whom Acosta has just fired, a dialogue which the brain forces Acosta to listen to as if he were an aggrieved third party to his own psychic turmoil. The beast, meanwhile, is incarnated in his body, his own flesh and matter. Brown Buffalo opens with a naked Acosta examining himself in a full-length mirror, and recoiling from what he sees; this bodily preoccupation is constant throughout the book, as he logs elations and anxieties through his viscera, reifies every kind of self-contempt in his inescapable obesity, battles hopelessly against his volcanic gut and raging nerves: 

My stomach aches and my heart burns … my sour stomach and the acid which drops into my chest … The pain in my stomach, the anguish in my neck, the swirling confusion in my poor head.

My stomach burns with acid, hot sauce, sawdust hamburgers, Chinese curry, wars and rumors of wars.

My huge body is a massive quivering nerve.

My rib cage is strapped with hot cords.

My single, utmost concern is to get those fucking ants out of my stomach.

Through all the convulsion and vomit, the schizoid epiphanies and dark nights of the soul, he is inadvertently working towards the center he has been missing. Near the end of Brown Buffalo, he's on a bus bound for Juarez, without wallet or identification, and unable to recall a word of Spanish; a man in khaki is stalking the aisle, searching old ladies’ grocery bags, and Acosta fears being arrested for “impersonating a mexicano." It isn’t surprising that one so body- and sex-obsessed receives his revolutionary calling, shortly thereafter, in the heat of an orgy with two prostitutes. But it is surprising, though absurdly credible (if absurd credibility is possible), that by the end he has come to some semblance of self-knowing, of identity – an identity not only cultural, political, social, and historical, but also personal. “I am neither a Mexican nor an American,” he decides. “I am neither a Catholic nor a Protestant. I am a Chicano by ancestry and a Brown Buffalo by choice.” 

The psychotic self-hatred, along with the grandiosity and violence, the sexism and homophobia, is inextricable from the humor, insight, passion, wild flights, and capacity for surprise that electrify The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. They are what make Acosta so bruising and companionable in its pages, and so much a person most of us would avoid encountering in real life. Oscar Acosta the militant Chicano lawyer is a vital figure in the social and political history of the late sixties. Oscar Acosta the Brown Buffalo is a marvelous creation, a singular persona, a monument to anguish and adventure worthy of a comic Goya. “I will save the world,” he writes. “I will show the world what is what and who the fuck is who. Me in particular.” He may have failed at the former, but he succeeded in the latter.


– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College(2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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