On Oscar Zeta Acosta

If people remember Oscar Zeta Acosta at all, it’s as a Samoan attorney. Since Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was published 40 years ago this week (as duly noted by the Rumpus), the 250-pound Baptist missionary turned Oakland Legal Aid lawyer turned Chicano activist turned unsolved mystery (he disappeared down in Mexico in 1974) has all but been eclipsed by his side-kick role as Dr. Gonzo. This is nowhere near right, because to only know Acosta as Thompson’s once “partner in too many crimes,” as Thompson noted, is to be ignorant of Acosta at his finest – as the engaging author of deliriously anarchic “memoirs,” American classics of the counterculture of the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Maybe that’s got something to do with Acosta’s books being sidelined for decades to the shelves of Chicano literature (if you can still find those shelves). Acosta, who shared with Thompson the same editor, Alan Rinzler, was the author of Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972) and The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973). Both are about the Chicano experience, true. But as is the case with most books supposedly only of interest to the ethnicity or race portrayed therein, this sort of narrow categorization does a disservice to the work. (Why not then shelve “The Adventures of Augie March” under Judaica and “Gravity’s Rainbow” under World War II?)

By coincidence, I got around to reading The Revolt of the Cockroach People the other week. What’s readily apparent while reading Acosta’s buoyant picaresque of running for L.A. County Sheriff (which he certainly did, losing only by a million votes or so), defending his fellow activists before biased judges (and spending nights in county jail for contempt of court), and dealing with the violence greeted upon the Chicano Moratorium (leaving respected newsman Ruben Salazar dead in the Silver Dollar Bar, thanks to a tear gas canister to the head), is how modern Acosta’s voice seems. Imagine a hilarious Michel Houellebecq novel. Or for a bigger stretch, try imagining one with a genuinely likable if miscreant narrator.

In Revolt, the stand-in for Acosta, Buffalo Zeta Brown, is all about La Raza, but he’s also about himself and chasing his Rabelaisian appetites. He realizes he plays a hand in fomenting chaos, but, disturbingly, is left unscathed by any of it. He wants revolution for the “cockroach people,” all those whom privileged society would indifferently step on, but he mostly wants revolution so he can do whatever the hell he wants, which is get high and womanize and raise hell. (One of the dudes who’s all too happy to firebomb a Safeway with Brown wants revolution so he can be left alone to shoot junk into his arms till they fall off.)

Just like a Houellebecq protagonist, Brown has no problem wallowing in rot. Statutory rape doesn’t faze him. Neither does wanton destruction or keeping company with thugs. He represents everything wrong about his permissive world (again, like a Houellebecq protagonist). It’s bracing, in fact, how unflinchingly the book portrays the baser motives of the Chicano counterculture, how its peppered with casual depictions of sexism and chauvinism among its ranks. That challenging honesty makes the set pieces about Mexican-American pride and struggle — an emotionally overwhelmed Anthony Quinn emceeing a rally where movie and music stars publicly declare themselves mexicanos; a visit to a beatific yet humorous Cesar Chavez — all the more significant and genuine. Here’s the unimpeachable good.

Maybe it’s because Acosta had nothing to be guarded about. It seems he wasn’t trying to pretty up anything, make saints out of sinners. If presidents and the pillars of society can be deeply flawed and self-deluded, if not monstrous, why would street revolutionaries be any different? Do they have to be poster boys of righteousness for their larger concerns about justice and equality to be heeded? (It would help, yes, but still…) That a reader would be so generous at all toward Brown’s vato locos has to do with the warmth of Acosta’s well-structured writing. (The author might have been out of control, but the writing isn’t. The sentences are clean and tight.) Despite all the depictions of grimy behavior, there’s a quality of joy here, of love. (Compare that to the oh so cool detachment of Houellebecq’s writing. And why do I pit Acosta against the acclaimed French novelist? Maybe that’s a Mexican thing. Cinco de Mayo and all that.)

In the preface to the Vintage 1989 edition of the book, Thompson writes, “Oscar Zeta Acosta. Stand back. He is gone now, but even his memory stirs up winds that will blow heavy cars off the road. He was a monster, a true child of the century – faster than Bo Jackson and crazier than Neal Cassady …” The man was no side kick. He was a headliner.

 

 

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