Hunter S. Thompson Essay - Thompson, Hunter S(tockton) (Vol. 9)

Thompson, Hunter S(tockton) (Vol. 9)

Thompson, Hunter S(tockton) 1939–2005

Thompson is an American author and reporter best known as the major practitioner of what he calls "gonzo journalism." Gonzo journalism, which takes New Journalism one step further beyond any pretense to objectivity, is characterized by its energy. His Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas describes a wild cross-country odyssey, and is generally recognized as one of the most popular books of the counterculture. Thompson has served as the South American correspondent of the National Observer, and is now national affairs editor for Rolling Stone. He has recently been parodied in Garry Trudeau's comic strip, "Doonesbury." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Hunter S. Thompson [in Hell's Angels] doesn't think much of the "button-down" lives of the squares. He likens them to "ribbon salesmen," enslaved to their "time payments," at best hypocritical pseudo-hipsters when they try to swing, and at worst, the liberal persecutors of the aberrant, or victims of affluence and "abulia," and the creators of a mass hysteria toward California's obscenely festooned gangs of motorcycling Hell's Angels which has only helped to glamorize and institutionalize their "outlaw" status, lending to their shabby Wehrmacht muftis and atavistic sleeziness a high-Camp prestige and a Charisma far exceeding the actual numbers of those who have been so attired.

Thompson also concedes that these "losers" on wheels are a threat to the self-satisfied bourgeoisie, but he takes great delight in exposing what has merely been invented and advanced about them by the mass media out of an opportunistic need to make eye-catching copy, and what Angel offenses are actual. (p. 30)

Thompson's fascinating invocation to, evocation of, and reportage about the Hell's Angels … is certainly the most informative, thorough, and vividly written account of this phenomenon yet to appear. And no wonder! Thompson spent better than a year among the Angels…. In the course of his investigation, Thompson may slight making the obvious connection between the motorcycle fad in this Country and that in pre-Hitlerian Germany under Weimar, but he makes a lot of other interesting connections between the Hell's Angels and present-day square society, especially its liberal elements. Although Thompson seems to have elevated the outlaws for himself to "new nadirs of sordid fascination," he has also managed to correct many popular misconceptions about them, and, in the process, provided his readers with a tendentious but informative participant-observer study of those who are doomed to lose. Yet his work might shortly be relegated to the souvenir bins of a rapidly-changing faddist era were it not for the assertions which Thompson makes about the proliferation of "losers" in our society, and for his talents as an imaginative writer.

Very simply, Thompson believes that the "unemployables" and the deracinated are on the ascendency in American life—that, in short, Hell's Angels are the avant garde of a new lumpen class. He is able to trace this class to the Hillbilly descendants of the indentured servant classes who came to this country two centuries ago and have only recently begun to appear in cities in large numbers, as well as to a fallout from other more recent ethnic groups, and, of course, to the resentfuls within the black ghettos. While he is generally in sympathy with such plights, even comparing such lumpen behaviour to the spontaneities of the Watts rioters, he further manages to see a peculiar integrity to this kind of behaviour which is in increasing conflict with a society upholding property, education, and restraint. (pp. 30-1)

[Thompson] actually seems to be projecting through … set pieces of comic, anti-square exaggeration … a future reign of anarchy and terror, a new order perhaps, civil war between the squares and the lumpen strata. (p. 31)

Taken … as a delirium for the future, Thompson's book is a hairily comic metaphor for a society getting just about what it deserves for napalming Vietnamese and instituting privilege for everybody except those who need it most; and it's a metaphor which, even in its grotesque nonsensicality, manages to scratch a bit of the truth off the American veneer…. In the work itself, Thompson's self-proclaimed aesthetic and his methodology have some of the integrity of George Orwell among the poor of London and Paris, and it also has the cranky peevishness of Orwell's fine attack in Wigan Pier on pseudo-leftists, progressives, and food faddists, but it seems to have dispensed with the very middle-class biases toward "decency" which Orwell tried so hard to assert and uphold. Rather, it asserts a kind of Rimbaud delirium of spirit for nearly everybody to which, of course, only the rarest geniuses can come close and, then, never through choice. For more than one reason, therefore, I suspect, that Hunter S. Thompson is a writer whose future career is worth watching. (pp. 31-2, 34)

Richard M. Elman, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1967 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 25, 1967.

["Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"] is by far the best book yet written on the decade of dope gone by.

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is a number of things, most of them elusive on first reading and illusory thereafter. A solid second act by the author of "Hell's Angels," it is an apposite gloss on the more history-laden rock lyrics ("to live outside the law you must be honest")…. [It is] a custom-crafted study of paranoia, a spew from the 1960's and—in all its hysteria, insolence, insult, and rot—a desperate and important book, a wired nightmare, the funniest piece of American prose since "Naked Lunch."…

These are the tracks of a man who might be dismissed as just another savage-sixties kook, were it not for the fact that he has already written himself into the history of American literature, in what I suspect will be a permanent way. Because, regardless of individual reader-reactions, his new book is a highballing heavyweight, whose ripples spread from Huckleberry Finn to F. Scott's Rockville grave….

Like Mailer's, Thompson's American dream is a fanfare of baroque fantasy. It should not, despite its preemptive title, be mistaken for a synopsis of the American experience (even though the narrator comes to think of himself as a "monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger"). But its limits are no narrower than the limits of lunacy, and its method is as adventurous as any to be found in all the free-fire-zone writing of the past dozen years.

"Writing" is as exact a label as the book will carry. Neither novel nor nonfiction, it arrives with fashion's special sanction. Its roots are in the particular sense of the nineteen-sixties that a new voice was demanded…. (p. 17)

But who taps fashion for wisdom gets poison in the sap, and "Fear and Loathing" is the quick assassin of the form it follows. Not the least of Thompson's accomplishments is to suggest that, by now, the New Journalism is to the world what the New Criticism was to the word: seductive, commanding—and, finally, inadequate. The form that reached apotheosis in "Armies of the Night" reaches the end of its rope in "Fear and Loathing," a chronicle of addiction and dismemberment so vicious that it requires a lot of resilience to sense that the author's purpose is more moralizing than sadistic. He is moving in a country where only a few cranky saviors—Jonathan Swift for one—have gone before. And he moves with the cool integrity of an artist indifferent to his reception.

For the things the book mocks—hippies, Leary, Lennon, journalism, drugs themselves—are calculated to throw Thompson to the wolves of his own subculture. And the language in which it mocks them is designed to look celebratory to the stolid reader, and debased to established critics. This book is such a mind storm that we may need a little time to know that it is also, ting! literature.

Much the same thing happened with Henry Miller—with whom Thompson has perhaps even more kinship than with Burroughs. Hero of all his books, drowning in sex and drink, Miller makes holy what Thompson makes fundamental: appetite. In both writers, the world is celebrated/excoriated through the senses. But the taste of the one is for rebellion, of the other for apocalypse writ small.

Apart from the artistry, it is a modestly eschatological vision that lifts "Fear and Loathing" from the category of mere funky reminiscence. It unfolds a parable of the nineteen-sixties palatable to those of us who lived them in a mood—perhaps more melodramatic than astute—of social strife, surreal politics and the chemical feast. And it does so in language that retires neither into the watery sociology of the news weeklies nor the zoo-Zen of the more verbally hip. Far out. Thompson trusts the authority of his senses, and the clarity of a brain poised between brilliance and burnout. (pp. 17-18)

The book's highest art is to be the drug it is about, whether chemical or political. To read it is to swim through the highs and lows of the smokes and fluids that shatter the mind, to survive again the terror of the politics of unreason. Since plot has been scrapped, the whole thing must be done in the details, in cameo sketches and weird encounters that flare and fade into the backdrop of the reader's imagination. These details are technically accurate, which is a contemporary form of literary precision, with all ambiguity intact. (p. 18)

Crawford Woods, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 23, 1972.

"Gonzo Journalism" Hunter Thompson himself calls it, starting [in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas] with a piece of straight reportage, then lighting out here, improvising there, goofing about, wheeling into a Jim Crow act and back again through Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to a real-life Nevada off-the-road rally for motor-cycles and dune-buggies or top-level drug conference for assorted cops and lawyers in down-town Las Vegas. "I lost all track of the ratio between what was true and what was not", he admits. For this is mostly stunt work, serial variations with precious little theme; and the variations are all of one glorious super-binge, not on booze but a whole narcotic lab of uppers, downers, screamers, laughers. The effect, for a normal adult, is about as funny as walking into a fairground hall of distorting mirrors…. Call me Ishmael! For the whole point on this new picaresque is that the American-style rogue-hero must not merely tease or insult the Silent Majority, but abuse it, outrage it, twist it, hurt it, smash it….

Being Americans, of course, some specious special pleading is to be expected. Note the title out of Kierkegaard. Hist, boys, here comes Captain Ahab once again on the Pequod's classic voyage hunting the great White Whale:

But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country—but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.

But it is not this kind of pretentiousness—with its banner headline, "A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream"—that gives this book its undoubted, frenzied impetus. It is the version of The Star-Spangled Banner re-run as a horror movie. It is the vision of America as a permanent Saturnalia, a wholly self-destructive, kinky free-for-all where anything goes. But humour will keep breaking in; and the introduction of the Samoan attorney Dr Gonzo (alias Oscar Zeta Acosta), in his Hawaiian beach-shirt and white rayon bell-bottoms, playing a drug-crazed Sancho Panza to the quixotic hero of this mixed-up quest, is a monstrously comic turn of egomaniacal, vicious nastiness—a kind of Pacific Coast Mr Toad cruising stoned down the desert highway in his hired white convertible Cadillac.

"Stoned Rollers," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 3, 1972, p. 1307.

["Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72"] is the best account yet published of what it feels like to be out there in the middle of the American political process…. [It] is a mixture of personal narrative, diary entries, tape-recorded interviews and telephone conversations with the candidates and their managers, occasionally irrelevant fantasies and—towards the end when [Thompson] was running past his deadline—an extended interview with himself.

Thompson writes on two levels. On one, he is the journalist observing the candidates in action from any accessible perspective. His comments in this regard are revealing both about the problems of campaign coverage and the differences among the candidates….

On another level, Thompson is defiantly subjective. Unlike his more conventional colleagues, he feels free to denounce hypocritical political maneuvering when he spots it….

Unlike Theodore White's regular reports, which have become as much a part of the electoral institution as the inauguration, "Fear and Loathing" is obviously not an exercise in objective, analytic contemporary history. But neither is it like Norman Mailer's accounts of the conventions, which are, by contrast, less involved with the factual immediacy of politics and more concerned with its symbolic implications….

Thompson's book, with its mixed, frenetic construction, irreverent spirit and, above all, unrelenting sensitivity to the writer's own feelings while on the political road, most effectively conveys the adrenalin-soaked quest that is the American campaign. Crisscrossing the country often two times a day, stopping in hotels, shopping marts and factories in obscure Midwestern towns, Thompson might have been running for office himself. By monitoring his own instincts and observations in the process, he shows us what it must be like for the candidates.

Referring to himself as a "political junkie" who needed the best speed on the market to keep going (the "Zoo plane" on which the journalists covering Mc Govern traveled was evidently loaded with cocaine, marijuana and hashish), Thompson uses drug imagery throughout the book to describe the effects of campaigning. "There is a fantastic adrenalin high that comes with total involvement in almost any kind of fast-moving political campaign—especially when you're running against big odds and starting to feel like a winner." Citing stories of Humphrey's connections to mob money and of McGovern's placement of spies in Humphrey's campaign, Thompson shows just how compulsive is the trip to win the Presidency in America, and how overwhelming the temptation for the candidates to go outside the law to win.

Must the men who aspire to lead us be put through such an ordeal, living constantly on what Thompson refers to as "the edge"? Perhaps whistlestop and jet-plane campaigning should be abandoned and the candidates should compete solely through the electronic media. I don't know, and neither does Thompson. What Thompson does know, however, is that whatever the campaign procedures, the White House will continue to loom in the imagination of power-addicted men as the glassine-bagged white powder does in the imagination of the junkie. Watergate was the attempted rip-off of a fellow addict. "Fear and Loathing" lets us understand why the men we elect to the Presidency may have needle tracks on their integrity.

Tom Seligson, "The Tripping of the Presidency, 1972," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 15, 1973, p. 7.

[Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72] is the most exciting book written about the 1972 campaign and one of the best about American politics of the last decade….

Fear and Loathing is a New Journalism account of the campaign from before New Hampshire to Miami and beyond, and I'm sure it will be regarded as a classic in the genre….

Thompson discards any pretension to godlike objectivity. Rather than disguising his natural, human bias, he puts it "up front." (p. 120)

Thompson's approach goes beyond that of a New Journalist, first-person school. He is, he tells us, a Gonzo journalist, which means, as near as I can figure it, that he is constantly on the verge of hitting his self-destruct button. He moves from spirit-crushing hotel to spirit-crushing hotel, back and forth across the country, in the amphetamine high of the campaign, strung out on booze and drugs and lost sleep. He's always on the verge of total-loss-of-control, ever prepared to don the jacket with the buckles in back. In short, the Gonzo is a wild man. (pp. 120-21)

Steven d'Arazien, "Wild Man's View of the Campaign, "in The Nation (copyright 1973 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), August 13, 1973, pp. 120-22.