Travel literature review: Hella Nation

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Hella Nation by Evan Wright

4 star
Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Ali Lemer, staff writer

One of the first things I noticed after moving overseas from the US is that people I met loved offering their opinions about my home country. Some found America endlessly fascinating; others, beneath contempt; but what surprised me the most was discovering how prevalent was the idea that there was but one ‘American culture’, one generic type of ‘American’. In his newest book, Hella Nation, a collection of features previously published in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and other magazines, journalist Evan Wright chronicles the lives of people from a broad swath of America’s motley subcultures – sex workers, skateboarders, white supremacists, professional fighters, convicts, anarchists, even US soldiers in Afghanistan – all in some way, he tells us, ‘exiles from the mainstream of American culture’.

A former writer and editor for Hustler, Wright considers himself a member of one of these ‘lost tribes’: ‘My Life in Porn’ details his experiences in that ‘outcast industry’, showing us the real people behind its neon illusions – the insecure big-shot directors, the nervy-yet-frail actresses, the sadly romantic fans; it bookends nicely with ‘Dance with a Stranger’, about the shadowy demimonde of the taxi-dance hall, another industry where ersatz intimacy is up for hire. In ‘Wingnut’s Last Day on Earth’, Wright wryly depicts a group of left-wing anarchists at the Seattle WTO protests with more noms de guerre than black hoodies, then swings over to the other (far) side of the political aisle with dispassionate portrayals of neo-Nazi separatists (‘Heil Hitler, America!’) and a former Hollywood agent turned right-wing gonzo war reporter (‘Pat Dollard’s War on Hollywood’).

The theme of the book feels thinnest in the pieces that outline a day in the life of subculture celebrities such as past-their-prime Metal men Mötley Crüe or an Ultimate Fighting Championship star; their success, C-list though it may be, robs them of much fringe cred or real sympathy. Wright’s best pieces instead portray the tragic lives of striving unknowns, such as the hapless Russian teen whose brush with petty crime leads to a tangled skein of fraud, conspiracy, theft and murder that Wright skillfully unravels in ‘The Bad American’. Despite its occasional unevenness, Hella Nation is still a compelling read, illustrating the length and breadth – and depths – of America’s subcultures, and the complexities of the lives found within.

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