Some critics have either reduced or celebrated Thompson’s literary status as merely the transcriptions of a hyperbolic, deviant, or as one critic dubbed him, ritualistic writer, collecting himself within the popular, political, or cultural moment at any given time. There is truth to that. By the same token, to come to terms with Thompson’s self-titled “gonzo” style and approach to composition is to come into contact with one of the cultural byproducts of the 1960’s counterculture movement known as the New Journalism.
Coined to some degree or another by one of its own practitioners, Thomas Wolfe, the New Journalism sought to approach journalism more from the vantage point of the literary essay. It was enamored with the free speech movement coming out of the University of Berkeley in the mid-1960’s and possibly even more concerned with the idea that a nonbiased, objective journalism was veritably impossible. Thus, New Journalists sought not to even try to aim at objectivity. Rather, picking up off of the underground newspapers populating colleges, universities, and major metropolitan centers of influence, they aimed at trying to place themselves within the cultural moment being reported upon and attempted to give the most accurate description of all observable phenomena (including the feelings, emotions, and cultural ephemera that the reporter was experiencing at the time).
Oftentimes, this approach at compiling an absolute verisimilitude gave the narratives constructed a particularly nonjournalistic look: Pieces often resembled stream-of-consciousness prose reminiscent of James Joyce; conversational-styled vernacular became more pressing than strong syntax and diction; and the journalist’s own “I,” as a voice often used as counterpoint to actual discernable concrete fact, became imperative to get a full account of the story. The effect created by this new approach was one of meta-commentary on the events being reported on, whereby the events, themselves, almost become subservient to the narrative of the person reporting.
Thompson took this approach a step further, into a category of almost subversive decadence with what he eventually came to call gonzo journalism. The exact definition of the term is somewhat unclear as Thompson often defined and redefined the term with the same sort of flippancy that led him to call himself a doctor of journalism (a degree he bestowed upon himself when he received a mail-order “Doctor of Divinity” card from a San Francisco church). The term itself came from fellow journalist Bill Cardoso, who could only describe Thompson’s writing as gonzo. Insofar as it is an actual methodology, gonzo journalism’s main attributes seem to be heavily indebted to the drug culture about which Thompson avidly reported.
For, if Thompson’s narratives on how to write from the gonzo perspective are to be held as accurate and instructional, then gonzo journalism demands writing under the influence of narcotics, alcohol, and a variety of illicit substances and then transferring that writing directly into print publication with virtually no substantial revision. In this effect, the construction of the narrative becomes directly indebted to the state of consciousness of the writer; for example, if the writer is operating on an ether and mescaline high, then that prose may or may not be subject to that writer’s own paranoias, anxieties, or hallucinations. This can account for the dramatic shifts in narrative style and focus in Thompson’s writing, in addition to his occasional use of direct transcription from audio tape to the written page (as Thompson had, on occasion, claimed no memory of the incidents except for as they were recorded).
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
First published: 1972
Type of work: Long fiction
In search of the American Dream, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo scour the Las Vegas Strip on an investigative trek into the American drug culture.
Standing posthumously somewhere behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the figure of Horatio Alger, Jr. A nineteenth century author of rags-to-riches fairy tales, Alger wrote stories describing how the littlest guy, through nothing more than hard work and determination, could succeed and achieve the American Dream. The conclusions to which Thompson takes that initial premise in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas probably go well beyond anything Alger ever possibly conceived....
(The entire section is 1837 words.)