Like many people, the limited knowledge that I had of Oscar Zeta Acosta came to me through the writings of Hunter S. Thompson. He is the real-life basis for Dr. Gonzo, the “300 pound Samoan” in Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a truly terrifying man. His physical size is matched by a larger-than-life personality, a wild temper, and a hunger for hard drugs. But what of the real Acosta – the man behind the myth?
The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo is in many places referred to as a novel, rather than an autobiography, but on the cover of its new edition, by The Tangerine Press of London, it is “the first book” by Acosta. Certainly, reading the book one gets the impression that it is a somewhat fictionalized version of the events that took place in the author’s own life, but to what extent they are fictionalized is unclear. It is written very much like a novel, but the events mostly ring true. Certainly, his depiction of himself is disarmingly open. “I am not a man to hide things,” Acosta writes, and one is inclined to believe him.
Two things shocked me, where perhaps I should not have been shocked. 1) Acosta is actually a very good writer. 2) The book presents him as a very vulnerable character, dealing with serious issues relating to his body and heritage.
To the first point, this book is really well-written for the most part. I knew of Acosta primarily as the drugged-up attorney Thompson portrayed, but also as a passionate crusader for racial justice. I had no idea he was gifted with words. The book is somewhat inconsistent, in that it is certainly better in some parts than others, but when Acosta is on form, he writes extremely well. It is a complex autobiography (if one is to label it as such) in that there are at least two narrative threads. The book carries us from Acosta quitting his job as a lawyer, only twelve months into his career, to the moment he decides he is going to fight for the rights of his fellow “Brown Buffalos” – his term for Hispanic people. However, the narrative is frequently interrupted by sections of varying length which take us back to events in his past – key events that give us a better understanding of who he is. The present narrative is largely confused by drugs, as Acosta tries various hallucinogens, but the various stories from his past are engaging and vivid.
From what I knew of Acosta through Thompson’s books and a handful of other sources, Acosta was a terrifying force – crazy, drugged-up,and physically huge. I was surprised to read a book in which he confesses so many insecurities. His giant body is fraught with pains and weaknesses. He is overweight, has stomach ulcers, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, a small penis, and feels he is ugly. As a child he is bullied, beaten up, and helpless. Helplessness dominates his childhood but also spills over into adulthood as he is dragged along in the current, his own life story more or less dictated by events outside his control. As a lawyer, he is helpless to defend the people he wants to defend. Life is simply too difficult, too unfair.
Race, too, is an issue throughout the book. Acosta is of Mexican ancestry but as a child is bullied for speaking Spanish and for being dark-skinned. He stops speaking Spanish and later becomes too American for Mexico, where he finds he has more or less forgotten how to speak his “father’s language,” as it is called. Acosta sometimes introduces himself as Mexican, sometimes as Aztec, sometimes as Indian, and most often as Samoan… before he decides that he is a Brown Buffalo.
The events of the book – the present narrative events – take place in the late sixties. Acosta is turned on to drugs and music like Bob Dylan and the Jefferson Airplane, but he outright rejects the label of “hippie”, and has even more contempt for the Beat/beatnik movement that came before:
Ginsberg and those coffee houses with hungry-looking guitar players never did mean shit to me. They never took their drinking seriously. And the fact of the matter is that they got what was coming to them. It’s their tough luck if they ran out and got on the road with bums like Kerouac, then came back a few years later shouting Love and Peace and Pot. And still broke as ever.
Elsewhere, he stops outside City Lights Bookstore, which he calls a hangout for “sniveling intellectuals”. Acosta is equally unimpressed by Timothy Leary, who makes an appearance.
Hunter S. Thompson appears as Karl King, a bald hillbilly on a motorcycle with a penchant for mescaline and mischief. It is interesting to me that this book was published in 1972, the same year as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They are almost companion pieces, in some odd way. Certain chapters here act almost as a prequel – the origins of Duke and Gonzo. Where Thompson’s book offers an unflattering, almost cartoonish portrait of Acosta, Acosta’s book does the same for Thompson. Here it is Thompson who is the wild man, the trouble-maker, the instigator. He is the larger-than-life caricature, given a pseudonym and a misattributed origin. (While Thompson called Mexican-American Acosta Samoan, Acosta has Thompson coming from Tennessee rather than Kentucky.)
At the beginning of this review, I asked whether The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo offers a different perspective on Oscar Zeta Acosta, and indeed it does. People who know him only through the work of his friend, Hunter Thompson, will probably be shocked to see that the man ever had a sensitive side. Yet the Thompson version of Acosta is hardly “myth.” This is how Acosta presents himself at times. What we have is the story of how a sensitive young boy became the pill-popping wild man.
In Fear and Loathing, Acosta’s character famously begs Raoul Duke to throw a radio into his bathtub during the Jefferson Airplane song, “White Rabbit,” killing him at precisely the right moment. Thompson instead throws a grapefruit, causing Dr. Gonzo to think, for a few seconds, that he is dying. In Brown Buffalo, we see how Acosta became so fragile that, several years later, he would want to die. We see him contemplate suicide. We even see him encounter the song, “White Rabbit,” for the first time, and why it is of such importance to him:
I am not the sort of person people approach. Perhaps it is my bearing. They say I scowl, that I’m over zealous, threatening in appearance. I call immediate attention to myself. Yet when I speak my voice is soft, medium in tone and, unless I’m pissed, pleasant to hear. But girls and women never, ever speak to me first. Yet this lovely little chick led me by the hand and swung me around the floor to “White Rabbit.”
The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo presents a complex character, which Acosta most certainly was. There is a new afterword at the end of the Tangerine Press edition, written by his son, which perfectly rounds off the story. Oscar Zeta Acosta was no saint, but he was a tortured man who developed self-destructive tendencies, and unsurprisingly died young, under mysterious circumstances. Though he did not live long, at least he left behind this book, a fascinating insight into one of the sixties’ most colourful and misunderstood characters.