When the Going Got Weird, the ‘Wired’ Turned Pro

As a Georgetown sophomore I interviewed Hunter S. Thompson as he strode jauntily through the high-ceilinged corridors of the Kennedy Center (where he had graced a panel shared with R.W. ‘Johnny’ Apple of the New York Times and Pat Buchanan, the latter a characteristically incongruous Thompson pal). I wrote a lengthy profile on the legendary father of “gonzo journalism” for a campus weekly, then handed him a copy prior to his appearance at American University a couple weeks later.

Dr. Thompson had already read and reported liking the piece, more than qualifying me for inclusion in his floating entourage-of-the-moment. HST was a stone genius on the page but as for his live gigs…well, in an age of mutant alchemy, lurching incoherence played well along the collegiate lecture circuit. It later worked for me too, for a time; distant echoes still get loosed in moments of classroom exhaustion.

As I looked on enthralled that night at American U. in autumn 1975, HST cracked open a very large pre-performance bottle of Wild Turkey while lying prone on a classroom floor: a lanky Kentuckian conveying a certain intimacy with violence, yet scarcely concealing an extraordinarily sweet and even courtly temperament, his readily evident manner of living notwithstanding.

Within a few months I’d departed the nation’s capitol and its Jesuit university—sans degree–hoping to become the underweight, even more hyperactive Irish Hunter Thompson. The next few years witnessed instead episodes of religious enthusiasm—if not mania—whose residue fueled a career in cultural and historical studies of U.S. Catholicism in a kind of self-styled ‘gonzo history’ mode; autobiography via defiant indirection/evasion that treated everything Catholic but ‘the church.’

But by the time the grossly euphemized “clergy sex abuse scandal” broke open—again–in 2002, it was clear to me that On the Irish Waterfront was destined to offer a detailed treatment of Catholic violence in a distinct place, where a code of silence and intimacies with violence sported by those in power assumed a kind of devotional quality: that is, comprised an integral component of the religion itself, a total if not totalitarian Catholicism that reined o’er the West Side and Jersey piers.

I hasten to add that in a book bent on dismantling ‘allegorical’ readings of the great movie, the last thing I sought was a facile link between the Irish waterfront of history and memory and the present self-inflicted Catholic catastrophe. The book does, though—at least I hope it does—open up for further treatment historical practices heretofore covered by their own code of silence, within which the range of permissible questions was highly circumscribed by a self-policing impulse somebody else will need to explore in their own book.

Queries as yet un-posed: Was the sexual assault dimension of the present (because for survivors it is ceaseless) human cataclysm prefigured in a culture of Catholic violence, rooted in theological claims to dominion over young bodies and an historically obsessive quest to establish and maintain a “Christian social order?” Was this same force as pervasive among legions of devout families as in ‘the Church?’

Did an inviolable Catholic code of silence erase these crimes—for decades if not forever—and render meaningless and void memories, narratives, and histories wrought of such horrific experience? Since both human experience and the quest for meaning were routinely nullified on the Irish waterfront, there was nothing to narrate this side of insanity. Just such a version of totalitarian religiosity long covered the waterfront, self-erasing slain longshoremen whose bodies were tossed into the North River only to re-emerge, floating semi-decomposed downriver when the waters warmed.

Such things as these have been opened up on the readings circuit; to be revisited here soon.


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