There’s a fascination with the outlaw that runs through American culture and its literature. From the benign rascal to the murderous train robber, these outlaws represent the edges of America’s double-edged sword–its individualistic ethos. It’s an ethos that survives even in today’s world of i-Pods and contrived styles. Indeed, those very styles are often sold under the guise of providing one an outlaw’s credibility. Of course, this merchandising of the outlaw is not the real thing, but the fact that it works as well as it does as an advertising gimmick proves the hold that the outlaw maintains on the American psyche.
If there’s something to blame for the merchandising of the outlaw mystique for the consumer, it might do well to look at that period of time known as the 1960s. The obstinate refusal of the counterculture to go along with the precious program from the 1950s forced advertisers to figure out a way to package that refusal. Those advertisers had a good deal of help, of course, from the hucksters that abounded throughout hippiedom and its corollaries. That’s the lure of the dollar for you.
Simultaneously, however, the 1960s may very well represent the last time period in the United States that someone really could live the outlaw life without being a gangster. Back then, many pot smugglers and acid dealers really did see their work as an almost religious act. In fact, one of those smugglers that felt that way was Jerry Kamstra, author of The Frisco Kid and Weed.
Kamstra was, by his own telling, a marijuana smuggler who told his tale of one smuggling venture in his book Weed. Because the US frontier had already been settled with tract houses and freeways, the only frontiers left were in another country and inside the mind. His book is the story of his journey into the mountains of Guerrero state in Mexico with $5000 to buy several pounds of weed.
Over the course of his tale, he discusses the hippie movement, the growing involvement of gangsters in the pot trade as it became more profitable, the idiocy of Washington’s war on drugs, and the adventure he finds himself in every time he goes on a smuggling journey.
The action in this book takes place right around the time of Richard Nixon’s Operation Interception–a well-publicized attempt to stifle the importation of marijuana from Mexico. This “operation” was one of the first overzealous attempts by US drug agents to quash the desire among US residents to smoke pot.
Kamstra captures the period when the counterculture dream began to sour without any bitterness himself. At once a great adventure story and a classic piece of counterculture dope smuggling literature, Weed ranks up there with The New Riders of the Purple Sage song about a smuggler simply titled “Henry” and Vancouver underground comix artist Rand Holmes’ 1973 comic featuring his creation Vancouver freak Harold Head on a smuggling adventure.
Gary Corcoran’s Trip to the Milky Way is a novel in the same vein. It is a tale of flight and it’s a story of love. A beautifully told tale of one man’s journey from the military draft and toward himself during the US war on Vietnam, this occasionally humorous, often heartwrenching novel is a tale of a generation that serves as a metaphor for a nation that lost its way. The story is a story of wandering. Sometimes the wanderer is lost and sometimes he is just wandering. Some others in his life are focal points for his psyche–like a triangulation point one uses when orienteering–while others represent places he would like to reach. As mentioned before, it is a story of love. Love, that is, that occurs amidst a world of hate. It seems almost trite, but the tale is anything but.
Corcoran’s protagonist Clay Matthews is a young man with no particular place to head towards. However, when he finds himself the target of an FBI investigation because he unknowingly shared a house with some members of the Weather Underground shortly before he left the Los Angeles induction center while awaiting the results of his draft board physical, Clay begins moving away from everything he has known before, including the primary passion of his life, a woman named Caroline. Traveling to Hawaii and then to Tucson to smuggle dope across the border, he ends up in Mexico in search of something unnamed. Through it all, Clay’s life is a battle between his desire for a regular middle class life and his existence in a world that is anything but.
This is a story that some readers today might find too incredible to be believed, even as fiction. But it isn’t. Instead, it’s an extraordinarily exciting story of a man and his desires to be free and to be in love. Perhaps the most evocative part of this narrative are the descriptions of the Mexican prison Clay and his friends find themselves in.
Seemingly doomed to a life in this hell, it becomes imperative that they figure out how to escape. Some do so by becoming someone else inside, others by doing drugs, and still others by actually risking escape and the high potential for death that risk involves.
If the counterculture was a generation’s evocation of the rebellious aspect of the American psyche, then Clay is that generation’s individual personification of the outlaw. Butch Cassidy and Huck Finn. Beat/counterculture antihero Neal Cassady and LSD chemist and propagandist Stanley Owsley. Indeed, the comparison to Owsley was brought home to me after reading a couple recent stories about Mr. Owsley in Rolling Stone and the San Francisco Chronicle.
That medicine man to the acid generation lived his singular approach to life often unaware of the effects it might have on his closest friends. Clay does the same. Friendship and treachery, love and hate, avarice and aversion to the gold.
Living outside and in opposition to the law yet we still look to the outlaw for their honesty of conviction. Didn’t Bob Dylan sing in his song “Outlaw Blues:” “Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’,/I just might tell you the truth?” Be careful, because that’s what you might find in Kamstra’s adventure and Corcoran’s novel. And, as we all know, the truth is a rare phenomenon these days, with so many of our fellow humans preferring anything but.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org