Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606
Hunter S. Thompson 1939–2005
(Has also written under pseudonyms Raoul Duke and Sebastian Owl) American nonfiction writer, journalist, editor, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents criticism of-Thompson's work. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 9, 17, and 40.
Thompson is best known as the inventor of "gonzo journalism," a form of outspoken, irreverent commentary. Gonzo journalism grew out of the New Journalism movement of Thomas Wolfe and others who wanted to bring journalism beyond merely reporting facts to a level of literature in which writers bring their creativity to beat on the subject. Thompson's gonzo style parodies current events and satirizes American culture.
Thompson was born on July 18, 1939, in Louisville, Kentucky. Planning to someday make an impact in the world, Thompson retained carbon copies of all of his correspondence for future publication. These letters were eventually published as The Proud Highway (1997). Thompson began his career with a series of jobs at small newspapers, including stints as the sports editor of The Jersey Shore Herald and as a reporter for The Middletown Daily News. He then moved on to freelance writing, first based in Puerto Rico and then as the South American correspondent for The National Observer. During this time he also tried his hand at novel writing, but only fragments of his two novels were ever published. Thompson's unique brand of political writing gained widespread attention through his affiliation with Rolling Stone magazine, where the articles that later became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973) were originally published. Thompson also worked as a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. He currently lives on a farm in Woody Creek, Colorado, where he continues to write.
Thompson is known for his unique perspective and brutal honesty as a writer as well as for his flamboyant lifestyle. As a practitioner of gonzo journalism, Thompson enters a scene—the world of the Hell's Angels, Las Vegas gambling, and Washington politics are examples—and becomes a char-acter in the story. Far from maintaining the traditional journalistic ideal of impartiality, Thompson interacts with the players and records his impressions, often with scathing irreverence. His first book, Hell's Angels (1966), portrays his time on the road with the infamous motorcycle gang. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas collects his articles about five days spent in a drug-induced haze, immersed in the world of casino gambling. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 includes Thompson's behind-the-scenes impressions of the 1972 presidential campaign and its candidates. Two decades later, Better Than Sex (1993) offers the same perspective on the 1992 presidential campaign.
Thompson's gonzo journalism drew controversy from its inception, and many of the arguments it sparked remain unresolved. One of the points of contention among reviewers is the validity of labeling Thompson's writing "journalism": many believe that since he eschews neutrality, Thompson's writing by definition cannot be categorized as journalism. Beyond the semantics issues, however, critics are divided in their opinions of the quality of Thompson's prose. Some agree with Michael E. Ross, who considers him "one of our most incisive, insightful and hilarious social critics," while others reject his topics as insignificant and unnecessarily offensive. While some critics complain that Thompson's prejudices influence his writing excessively, others praise him for displaying his biases as other journalists attempt to hide theirs. Even some critics who disagree with Thompson's ideas and approach nonetheless comment favorably on the quality of his writing. Some critics in later years, however, have complained that Thompson's recent works do little more than rehash his earlier writings and that the author himself has become his own main subject.
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Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (nonfiction) 1966
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (nonfiction) 1972
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (nonfiction) 1973
The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time; Gonzo Papers, Volume One (nonfiction) 1979
The Curse of Lono (nonfiction) 1983
Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s; Gonzo Papers, Volume Two (nonfiction) 1988
Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream; Gonzo Papers, Volume Three (nonfiction) 1990
Silk Road: Thirty-three Years in the Passing Lane (nonfiction) 1990
Untitled Novel (novel) 1992
Better Than Sex: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1992 (nonfiction) 1993
The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (nonfiction) 1997
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SOURCE: "The Art of the Insult, or Gonzo Writer Strikes Again," in The New York Times, August 11, 1988, p. C23.
[In the following review, Mitgang asserts that Thompson "takes no prisoners" in his Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80s.]
Hunter S. Thompson, who gained a fan club with such hand-stitched books as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, is back with a collection of his pieces that appeared in The San Francisco Examiner in the last few years. They combine name-calling, bomb-throwing and sardonic humor. He's a little more strident this time out, but if you happen to share his public enemies, Mr. Thompson's your man.
Nearly everything he writes makes yellow journalism pale. With his targets the high rollers, from Sunset Strip to the White House, the former political writer for Rolling Stone elevates insult to an art form. He's dead serious and we blink, wondering how he can get away with it.
Gonzo, his own brand of journalism, has even found its way into the new Random House dictionary, which uses such words as bizarre, crazy and eccentric to define it. No one else gets credit for gonzo journalism in the dictionary; but then not many journalists would want it. Timothy Crouse—in his own perceptive book, The Boys on the Bus, about the behavior of reporters during the 1972 Presidential campaign—recalled when Mr. Thompson first earned his stripes as a political storm trooper by reporting that he had told Richard M. Nixon, "Go get 'em, Dick, throw the bomb! Fifty years more of the Thousand-Year Reich!"
Mr. Crouse observed, "After the revolution, we'll all write like Thompson." Not quite yet. His train of though often seems stuck at the Finland Station.
Nevertheless, he can be challenging. Mr. Thompson finds Watergate more in the American grain of political corruption than the Iran-contra affair. He writes: "The criminals in Watergate knew they were guilty and so did everybody else; and when the dust cleared the crooked President was gone and so were the others." By contrast, he calls those involved in Iran-contra affair "cheap punks" who have been "strutting every day for the past two months of truly disgraceful testimony." (That column was written July 20, 1987; all the columns have dates at the end but have not been updated by the author.) He finds that the Iran-contra investigation was "a farce and a scam that benefited nobody except Washington lawyers who charge $1,000 an hour for courtroom time."
Swinging for the fences, Mr. Thompson sometimes strikes out in his judgments. Disagreement depends on a reader's own set of assumptions and prejudices. Many of the names in these columns are obscure and require a knowledge of Mr. Thompson's friends and previous books. But he continues to speak up about political candidates for whom he holds more loathing than fear.
Writing about Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts a little over a year ago, Mr. Thompson was half prescient and half wrong. He described Governor Dukakis as "feisty" and possessing impressive credentials and "the style of a mean counterpuncher." Mr. Thompson says of Mr. Dukakis: "He was not in the mood, that night, to be poked and goaded by host/moderator William Buckley, who tried to make Dukakis the butt of his neo-Nazi jokes and left Houston with a rash of fresh teeth marks … Buckley has lost speed, in his dotage, but Dukakis is faster and meaner than a bull mongoose … But his chances of getting anything except a purple heart out of the 11 Southern States that will vote on 'Super Tuesday' next March are not ripe. The good ole boys will beat him like a gong, and after that he will be little more than a stalking horse for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who still insists he's not running."
And assessing Vice President Bush last March, Thompson first quotes a political friend of his about the Republican candidate's intellectual brilliance—"He is smarter than Thomas Jefferson"—and then gonzofies him: "He had no friends and nobody in Washington wanted to be seen with him on the streets at night." Mr. Thompson doesn't think the Vice President has a touch of the poet. He writes: "It was impossible that he could be roaming around Washington or New Orleans at night, jabbering about Dylan Thomas and picking up dead cats."
Mr. Thompson calls the present generation a "Generation of Swine." With that phrase as his title and premise, he takes no prisoners. A reader can go through the 300-plus pages of the book and look in vain for qualifying journalistic words. Mr. Thompson doesn't write measured prose. It's—well, gonzo.
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SOURCE: A review of Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s, in The New York Times Book Review, August 14, 1988, p. 17.
[In the following review, Ross asserts the value of Thompson's wisdom in Generation of Swine.]
In the literary free-fire zone of American culture and political commentary, Hunter S. Thompson has always been on point. In his latest book, Mr. Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, addresses new targets of opportunity—from Muammar el-Qaddafi and Ferdinand Marcos to a Soldier of Fortune trade show, from the George Bush campaign to handicapping the likelihood of a Democratic victory in November. His writing, ever feisty, proves again (as if it were necessary) that he is one of our most incisive, insightful and hilarious social critics. This collection, from his stint as a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner, is vintage Thompson. His celebrated gonzo style is here: facts blended with a savage embroidery of the truth. There are many swings of style and mood, but the heart of the book is disquieting. Mr. Thompson peers into the American future (so far as he is able) and is not happy. Assailing the present Administration, stockbrokers, television, newspapers and various foreign powers, he sees a sobering and profound discontent in American life. With Generation of Swine Mr. Thompson shows himself to be an outlandish, skeptical Jeremiah. But one harbors a suspicion that his is the kind of unvarnished, crazy wisdom that is valuable in these times. In moderation, of course.
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SOURCE: "Lost Generation," in National Review, Vol. XL, No. 18, September 16, 1988, pp. 52-3.
[In the following review, Vigilante complains that Thompson's "Generation of Swine is no more than the wish-fulfillment of a slightly deranged registered Democrat."]
It is hard to admit how bad Hunter Thompson's new book is. To me—as to most of the younger writers I have worked with over the past few years—Thompson, along with Tom Wolfe and a bunch of other now-aging New Journalists and their long-defunct movement, still represents the wild hope that journalism could aspire to the condition of literature, while beating the "just the facts, ma'am" boys at their own game.
It was—heck, it still is—an exciting prospect, even if (especially if?) you were, like us, primarily political journalists at constant risk of being consumed and destroyed by the hack imperative, the insistent demand of the audience to be lied to.
If the audience is made up of political ideologues, the lie they demand is that they are the only ones who see the truth in a sick world and can set things to rights. If they are typical New York Times readers, the lie is that everything is under control, or at least would be if the ideologues could be persuaded to sink into that ecstasy of equanimity, that libido of the tedious, that Tiresian torpor of a Times-man who has seen it all before and is all too willing to tell it all again, which alone qualifies a man to be an editor of the World's Only (thank heaven) Newspaper of Record—and also if some action could be taken to stabilize worrisome fluctuations in Third World bauxite prices.
The New Journalism offered escape from both lies. It put the pseudo-objective soporifics of the broadsheets to shame by applying to journalism the techniques of the realistic novel. But, at the same time, it required a romance with reality that undermined the ideologues' lust for self-deceit. For all the literary liberties of the most famous New Journalists, their stories, when done right, were more true than traditional journalism.
Thompson was one of the best, though always a high-risk case. The rules of Gonzo, his particular sect, made him a character in every story, and the risk of self-deceit there was high. He succumbed often. The drug stories were about self-deceit, and so was the Hell's Angels book in the end, and even Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, which could have been subtitled, "How a Guy as Hip as Me Fell for a Phony like McGovern." But the story was always there: Thompson's illusions were part of it, which come to think of it is pretty classic first-person-narratornovelistic technique and a darned effective story-telling device, which Thompson the devotee of Conrad had obviously thought a lot about.
Unfortunately the only story in Generation of Swine, mostly a collection of short pieces from the San Francisco Examiner, is how Thompson used to be a real man, and find great stories, but now he's just a worthless political hack who sits up in Aspen all day watching television (huge satellite dish, two hundred stations) and telling himself he is still a pro.
Thompson has become lazy and dishonest. Probably the most revealing story in the book is his great Haitian escapade. When Baby Doc fell, Thompson knew that Haiti was the place the old Hunter Thompson would have been, deep in the heart of a darkness made blacker than anything Conrad ever saw by the admixture of just a drop of civilization, or at least electric lights. And Thompson turned out several Haiti stories sprinkled with life-like details of demonic corruption. But he never went there (as he admits). All of his reporting was done from Miami.
The book is obsessively political. Thompson has always had strong prejudices, but these days that's all he has. Out of three hundred pages, perhaps 250 are consumed by ideological onanism, which he has somehow convinced himself will be as much fun for us as it was for him.
He is unable to demonstrate the slightest sympathy for any of his victims, except occasionally Ronald Reagan, or even to distinguish clearly among them. Reagan is "dumber than three mules" and can "have anybody who bothers him arrested." Robert Bork is a "certified hair-shirt punishment freak." Ed Meese is a "one-eyed hog." George Bush is "a truly evil man, a truthless monster with the brains of a king rat and the soul of a cockroach … who will loot the national treasury, warp the laws, mock the rules, and stay awake 22 hours a day looking for at least one reason to declare war, officially, on some hapless tribe in the Sahara or heathen fanatic like the Ayatollah Khomeini." George Bush?
Reagan's denunciations of Qaddafi are a "gaggle of wild charges," the bombing raid was insane, and hardline anti-Communists and born-again Christians are fascist perverts. But just mention selling arms to Iran and our boy goes ballistic with outraged patriotism and righteous anger for the 241 Marines killed by Iranian terrorists.
The problem here is not that Thompson has strong opinions, or that his opinions differ from mine. It's that it is now possible to predict everything Thompson will say by checking out the party registration of his subject. After all, by the lights of someone who generally regards a hard-line foreign policy as unrealistic (I'm translating), an attempt to uncover a faction of Iranian moderates ought to seem like a sensible idea. But for Thompson, Ollie North and his comrades, including Reagan, Meese, and Bush, are worse than Nixon or Gordon Liddy.
No living Democrat comes in for even mild criticism. But he does have his favorites: Gary Hart and … Ted Kennedy. Thompson spends hundreds of pages in outraged moralizing and then breathlessly announces the real moral: "Chappaquiddick was a long time ago. Enough is enough. The time has come."
These are not the judgments of a man who has gotten close enough to the story to "bring the techniques of the realistic novel to journalism," as Wolfe used to say, techniques that require that the author understand his victims' motives if not forgive their crimes. Generation of Swine is no more than the wish-fulfillment of a slightly deranged registered Democrat. Hunter Thompson, king of Gonzo Journalism, Hell's Angels outrider, terror of establishment power-worshippers everywhere, is, it turns out, just another party hack, an organization man. He should be sentenced to spend the rest of his life ringing doorbells and collecting kickbacks.
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SOURCE: "An Evening (Gasp!) with Hunter Thompson," in Time, Vol. 135, No. 4, January 22, 1990, p. 64.
[In the following interview, Allis describes his attempt to interview Thompson.]
Boston correspondent Sam Allis went to Colorado last week to interview Hunter S. Thompson, the inventor of gonzo journalism, author (Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and defiant eccentric, at his home in Woody Creek. This is what happened:
I gave up on the interview and started worrying about my life when Hunter Thompson squirted two cans of fire starter on the Christmas tree he was going to burn in his living-room fireplace, a few feet away from an unopened wooden crate of 9-mm bullets. That the tree was far too large to fit into the fireplace mattered not a whit to Hunter, who was sporting a dime-store wig at the time and resembled Tony Perkins in Psycho. Minutes earlier, he had smashed a Polaroid camera on the floor.
Hunter had decided to videotape the Christmas tree burning, and we later heard on the replay the terrified voices of Deborah Fuller, his longtime secretary-baby sitter, and me off-camera pleading with him, "NO, HUNTER, NO! PLEASE, HUNTER, DON'T DO IT!" The original manuscript of Hell's Angels was on the table, and there were the bullets. Nothing doing. Thompson was a man possessed by now, full of the Chivas Regal he had been slurping straight from the bottle and the gin he had been mixing with pink lemonade for hours.
But then the whole evening had been like this. It began in late daylight, when Hunter shot his beloved tracer pistol into the air and then started training it at passing cars. One tracer hit a tree and boomeranged back at us. Everyone thought that was really neat.
Then Hunter played his tape of a jackrabbit screaming. I didn't know rabbits even made noise. Hunters apparently use tapes like this to attract coyotes. I thought at first I was listening to a baby crying. Then I realized it was not human.
Then we shot Hunter's Olympic-quality pellet pistol at exploding targets he had mounted over his fireplace. This event was also taped.
Then we watched a tape of a pro-football game and then another of the famous 1971 Ali-Frazier fight. Thompson drank Chivas from the bottle and noshed on desserts he had taken from a fancy restaurant.
Then the fight tape ended, and Hunter decided he didn't want to do the interview with me. He decided he didn't like Q. & A. Deborah reminded him that he had agreed to do it. I reminded him that we had talked on the phone about it. He threw some things on the floor.
Then Hunter decided to try a few questions. But he needed a wig to do the interview, and he couldn't find one. "WHERE IS MY F______WIG?!" Deborah scurried off and found one. Then we sat down to talk. I began with a soft pitch on the '80s stuff he has written a lot about in his columns. He responded with questions on his views about suicide raised by his lecture audiences.
Then Deborah came in to tell Hunter she was going to bed, and Hunter panicked. Hunter, it became clear, is petrified of being left alone, particularly with Time magazine and a tape recorder. Hunter Thompson is a scared little puppy beneath the alcohol, tobacco and firearms. He bawled Deborah out for not briefing him adequately on the interview and said that Sam Allis was not to blame for this. He said this was NOT THE DESIRED EFFECT. That's when he smashed the Polaroid on the floor and decided to burn the Christmas tree.
When Hunter tossed a lit match at the Christmas tree, it exploded into flames. He took a few pulls on the fire extinguisher and then joined us outside. The view from the porch through the window resembled something out of Watts in 1965. The chimney was on fire. His five peacocks, whose roost was separated from the living room by a thin pane of glass, were not happy. Nor was Hunter, who yelled at me, "GET BACK IN THERE, FOOL!" He had given me an iron prodder with which I was to keep pushing the tree into the fireplace. "I'M NOT GOING BACK IN THERE," I yelled back.
The whole room was full of smoke, and flames kicked up onto the mantel and on toward the ceiling. Thompson dashed back in and did battle with the tree. Framed against the fire—his wig askew, his lower lip drooping, his eyes glazed—this 50-year-old man-child was in his element. Meanwhile, a tape of his favorite group, the Cowboy Junkies, played renditions of Sleep Walk by Santo and Johnny and then Blue Moon.
The video of all this is, quite simply, astonishing. I begged him for a copy, but Hunter only giggled. He knew it could be used in a mental-competency hearing. He was so pleased with it when we watched later in the kitchen that he brought out an earlier video he had made that involves him and an inflated life-size woman doll in a whirlpool bath. It was about then that Hunter called himself the "champion of fun." Deborah was so struck with the line that she immediately wrote it down.
It was now almost 3 a.m. Hunter was calm, his mania temporarily exhausted. He smiled as he walked me to my car and said, "I guess we will never see each other again."
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SOURCE: "Still Gonzo After All These Years," in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1990, pp. 7-8.
[In the following review, Rosenbaum asserts that Thompson is at his best in Songs of the Doomed when he's on the road after a story, instead of writing from the sidelines of his Woody Creek home.]
Saigon, May 1975. The city is about to fall to the National Liberation Front. The last American reporters left in the besieged capital are calculating when to fly out before the honorable desire to stay to the bloody end becomes merely suicidal. Meanwhile, Hunter S. Thompson has just flown in to the encircled city with $30,000 in cash taped to his body (don't ask). Only to learn he has been fired by Rolling Stone (some bitter dispute with its publisher, Jann Wenner, over a book advance) and both his medical insurance and his Telex card link to the outside world have been canceled by the magazine.
No problem. He's got a plan. He's going to convince the enemy that he's their one true friend in American journalism, that he should be the one to cover the final assault on the capital—from behind enemy lines. And so up in his room in Saigon's Hotel Continental Plaza he bangs out a "Confidential Memo to Colonel Giang Vo Don Giang," one of a number of memos, cables, fragments of memoirs and novels, and eviction notices collected in Songs of the Doomed, along with some of Mr. Thompson's best work of the past three decades.
In his memo to the Vietcong colonel Mr. Thompson tries heroically to communicate just what kind of writer he is, why he's different from other journalists. It's not an easy job.
"I trust you understand that, as a professional para-journalist, I am in the same position today that you were as a paramilitary professional about three years ago," he tells the colonel, and he offers to send him one of his classic works, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. He tells the colonel that he knows Jane Fonda. And he informs him, "I am one of the best writers currently using the English language as both a musical instrument and a political weapon."
While self-effacement has never been one of Mr. Thompson's strengths, I think he was absolutely right about how good a writer he was then. Fans across the political spectrum from Norman Mailer to Tom Wolfe and William F. Buckley Jr. have said as much in the past.
Is it still true now? Those of us who lack access to the biweekly column he wrote for The San Francisco Examiner until earlier this year (Mr. Thompson's chief outlet since his split with Rolling Stone) have had to await periodic appearances of these volumes of "The Gonzo Papers." The last one, Volume Two, cheerfully titled Generation of Swine, chiefly concerned itself with Mr. Thompson's jeremiads against the 80's.
This new volume, it should be noted, arrives under something of a cloud, if internal evidence is to be believed.
A peculiar editor's note before the final section informs us, "Our contract allowed us to go to press with whatever sections of the book we already had our hands on—despite the author's objections and bizarre motions filed by his attorneys in courts all over the country."
Reading between the lines one gathers that Mr. Thompson is planning on coming out with an entirely separate book on his recent legal ordeal and vindication—this summer a judge in Aspen, Colo., threw out charges of sexual harassment and drug and weapons possession against Mr. Thompson, which grew out of a dispute that involved a former pornographic film maker and a Jacuzzi. Mr. Thompson is now suing authorities for "malicious prosecution" and general revenge.
Evidently, Mr. Thompson did not want to skim the cream off the forthcoming book (working title: "99 Days: The Trial of Hunter S. Thompson"), but the editors wanted something from him about the celebrated case in this volume. So they have apparently chosen the dubious tactic of appending various clippings, reports and public domain documents on the case to the book, seemingly against the author's wishes.
Of course, this whole business of Mr. Thompson making "bizarre" threats against his own book—indeed the editor's note itself—could be a device concocted by the author.
He is often at his best when he deploys the apparently extraneous detritus of the journalism process as his most expressive vehicle. One of the high points of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, arguably his best book, is a section introduced by an editor's note declaring that, "in the interests of journalistic purity," the editor is presenting a "verbatim transcript" of a cassette found among Mr. Thompson's effects after he disappeared to escape Vegas debt collectors.
Of course that is the heart of the book—that ostensibly artless but suspiciously artful transcript of a conversation with a waitress in a coffee shop on Paradise Road about the precise location of the American dream.
Indeed, one of the high points of Songs of the Doomed is another alleged document, Mr. Thompson's "Secret Cable to Willie Hearst." Subject: his expenses, According to Mr. Thompson, Mr. Hearst's Examiner hasn't been paying them.
"I now list my Examiner expense bills on my 1040 form as 'uncollectible debts,'" Mr. Thompson writes. "And we now have a column that will never be written from anywhere more than 2.1 miles from the Post Office in Woody Creek," Mr. Thompson's Colorado home.
Mr. Thompson characteristically extracts a profound truth about journalism here from what might seem on the surface to be the standard expense-account memo whine. "The Old Man [William Randolph Hearst Sr.] was a monster," he writes, "but nobody ever accused him of skimming nickels and dimes off his best writers' expense accounts—and it wasn't his cheap-jack accountants who made him a legend in American journalism and the highest roller of his time."
The classic Thompson pieces in Songs of the Doomed, the kind of stories that have made him a high-rolling legend in journalism, are the ones in which he is out there on the highway running up expenses in search of emblematic weirdness, "Whooping It Up With The War Junkies in Saigon" or pursuing "Bad Craziness in Palm Beach."
But even more interesting than such successes in the book are the self-acknowledged failures: fragments of novels begun in the late 50's and early 60's, before Mr. Thompson burst onto the scene with Hell's Angels and his two Fear and Loathing books. While not a formal autobiography, the early novels, "Prince Jellyfish" and "The Rum Diary," do give us glimpses of the man behind the maniacal mask, the struggling writer before he attained sacred-monster status.
In the novel fragments we see the young former serviceman, an idealistic good ol' boy from Kentucky who reads Fitzgerald, comes to New York full of wonder hoping to make his mark in journalism by telling The Truth, finds himself rejected and scorned by cynical big-city editors, gets beaten up and disillusioned, and ends up in a kind of self-created hell as a reporter for a bowling magazine in San Juan (don't ask). There he almost self-destructs, stewing in his own bitterness before he catches on with The National Observer, the short-lived Dow Jones weekly, and his work starts getting noticed.
One thing you take away from these fragments is a sense of Hunter Thompson as far more complex and, well, sensitive than the cynical Uncle Duke caricature of him in "Doonesbury." All that rage in his work, all that fear and loathing, is the product, it seems, not of the sneering cynic but of a bitterly disillusioned idealist.
Reading Songs of the Doomed reminds us how good he was at his best, and how good he still can be when he's given the freedom—and expenses—to hit the road, rather than stewing in his own bitterness in Woody Creek.
Memo to Willie Hearst: Give this man back his expense account.
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SOURCE: "Life in the Stone Age," in The New Republic, Vol. 204, Nos. 1 and 2, January 7 and 14, 1991, pp. 38-44.
[In the following excerpt, Menand reviews Thompson's Songs of the Doomed, charging that the author is still living in the counterculture of the 1970s.]
After the Altamont concert disaster in December 1969, when a fan was killed a few feet from the stage where The Rolling Stones were performing, psychedelia lost its middle-class appeal. More unpleasant news followed in 1970—the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, the Manson Family trials, the deaths by overdose of famous rock stars. And even more quickly than it had sprung up, the media fascination with the counterculture evaporated.
But the counterculture, stripped of its idealism and its sexiness, lingered on. If you drove down the main street of any small city in America in the 1970s, you saw clusters of teenagers standing around, wearing long hair and bell-bottom jeans, listening to Led Zeppelin, furtively getting stoned. This was the massive middle of the baby-boom generation, the remnant of the counterculture—a remnant that was much bigger than the original, but in which the media had lost interest. These people were not activists or dropouts. They had very few public voices. One of them was Hunter Thompson's.
Thompson came to Rolling Stone in 1970, an important moment in the magazine's history. [Jann] Wenner had fired Greil Marcus, a music critic with an American studies degree who was then his reviews editor, for running a negative review of an inferior Dylan album called Self-Portrait (it is one of Wenner's rules that the big stars must always be hyped); and most of the politically minded members of the staff quit after the "Get Back" episode following Kent State. There were financial problems as well. By the end of 1970, Rolling Stone was a quarter million dollars in debt.
Hugh Hefner, who is to testosterone what Wenner is to rock 'n' roll, offered to buy the magazine, but Wenner found other angels. Among them were record companies. Columbia Records and Elektra were delighted to advance their friends at Rolling Stone a year's worth of advertising; Rolling Stone and the record companies, after all, were in the same business.
The next problem was to sell magazines. (Rolling Stone relies heavily on newsstand sales, since its readers are not the sort of people who can be counted on to fill out subscription renewal forms with any degree of regularity.) Here Wenner had two strokes of good fortune. The first was a long interview he obtained with John Lennon, the first time most people had ever heard a Beatle not caring to sound lovable. It sold many magazines. The second was the arrival of Thompson.
Thompson was a well-traveled, free-spirited hack whose résumé included a stint as sports editor of The Jersey Shore Herald, a job as general reporter for The Middletown Daily News, freelance work out of Puerto Rico for a bowling magazine, a period as South American correspondent for The National Observer (during which he suffered some permanent hair loss from stress and drugs), an assignment covering the 1968 presidential campaign for Pageant, two unpublished Great American novels, a little male modeling, and a narrowly unsuccessful campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado.
Thompson had actually been discovered for the alternative press by Warren Hinckle, the editor of Ramparts, which is when his writing acquired the label "gonzo journalism." But Thompson was interested in Rolling Stone because he thought it would help his nascent political career by giving him access to people who had no interest in politics (a good indication of the magazine's political reputation in 1970). A year after signing on, he produced the articles that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a tour de force of pop faction about five days on drugs in Las Vegas. It sold many copies of Rolling Stone, and it gave Thompson fortune, celebrity, and a permanent running headline.
Many people who were not young read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and thought it a witty piece of writing. Wolfe included two selections from Thompson's work in his 1973 anthology The New Journalism (everyone else but Wolfe got only one entry); and this has given Thompson the standing of a man identified with an academically recognized Literary Movement. But Thompson is essentially a writer for teenage boys. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is The Catcher in the Rye on speed: the lost weekend of a disaffected loser who tells his story in a mordant style that is addictively appealing to adolescents with a deep and unspecified grudge against life.
Once you understand the target, the thematics make sense. Sexual prowess is part of the Thompson mystique, for example, but the world of his writing is almost entirely male, and sex itself is rarely more than a vague, adult horror; for sex beyond mere bravado is a subject that makes most teenage boys nervous. A vast supply of drugs of every genre and description accompany the Thompson persona and maintain him in a permanent state of dementia; but the drugs have all the verisimilitude of a 14-year-old's secret spy kit: these grown-ups don't realize that the person they are talking to is completely out of his mind on dangerous chemicals. The fear and loathing in Thompson's writing is simply Holden Caulfield's fear of growing up—a fear that, in Thompson's case as in Salinger's, is particularly convincing to younger readers because it so clearly runs from the books straight back to the writer himself.
After the Las Vegas book, Rolling Stone assigned Thompson to cover the 1972 presidential campaign. His reports were collected in (inevitably) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. The series begins with some astute analysis of primary strategy and the like, salted with irreverent descriptions of the candidates and many personal anecdotes. Thompson's unusual relation to the facts—one piece, which caused a brief stir, reported that Edmund Muskie was addicted to an obscure African drug called Ibogaine—made him the object of some media attention of his own. But eventually the reporting breaks down, and Thompson is reduced at the end of his book to quoting at length from the dispatches of his Rolling Stone colleague Timothy Crouse (whose own book about the campaign, The Boys on the Bus, became an acclaimed exposé of political journalism).
Since 1972 Thompson has devoted his career to the maintenance of his legend, and his reporting has mostly been reporting about the Thompson style of reporting, which consists largely of unsuccessful attempts to cover his subjects, and of drug misadventures. He doesn't need to report, of course, because reporting is not what his audience cares about. They care about the escapades of their hero, which are recounted obsessively in his writing, and some of which were the basis for an unwatchable movie called Where the Buffalo Roam, released in 1980 and starring Bill Murray.
Thompson left Rolling Stone around 1975 and eventually became a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. He has been repackaging his pieces in chronicle form regularly since 1979. Songs of the Doomed is the third collection, and most of the recent material concerns the author's arrest earlier this year on drug possession and sexual assault charges in Colorado. Having made a fortune portraying himself as a champion consumer of controlled substances, Thompson naturally took the position that the drugs found in his house must have been left there by someone else. (The charges, unfortunately for a writer badly in need of fresh adventures, were dismissed.)
Thompson, in short, is practically the only person in America still living circa 1972. His persona enacts a counterculture sensibility with the utopianism completely leached out. There are no romantic notions about peace and love in his writing, only adolescent paranoia and violence. There is no romanticization of the street, either. Everything disappoints him—an occasionally engaging attitude that is also, of course, romanticism of the very purest sort. Thompson is the eternally bitter elegist of a moment that never really was, and that is why he is the ideal writer for a generation that has always felt that it arrived onstage about five minutes after the audience walked out.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4445
SOURCE: "When the Going Gets Weird," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 23, December 19, 1991.
[In the following review, Copetas discusses Thompson's Songs of the Doomed and offers personal reminiscences of socializing with "Doc" Thompson.]
The winter of 1978 is full of strange and apocalyptic memories now. Doc and I were weird-betting a college basketball game in the gentrified servants' quarters of a large Georgetown estate house that December. Magic Johnson was playing for Michigan that Saturday night and I'd gambled that three successive baskets would be made by players with odd-numbered jerseys. I was ahead a few bucks when the Ohio State centre put a savage elbow into Magic's young chin and Doc's screams of 'foul' were interrupted by the sight of a White House adviser about to break open a vial of cocaine. Doc slapped me on the shoulder and muttered 'Jeeesus'—a sure sign of impending doom.
Doc always sees things before anyone else. As Magic picked himself up off the court, Doc first glanced quickly at the other fifteen or so people in the spacious loft, and then bored in on the looming White House official. Doc poured two long shots of whisky and offered his prognosis. He said there was venom in the air, a generation of swine were nearing maturity, and life was going to be a whole lot different and a hell of a lot more ominous for anyone who believed in the guarantees of the Constitution of the United States. I remembered that crazy night in Washington a few days ago, right after I heard that Magic had to leave the Lakers because he tested positive for the HIV virus. The tragedy of the Magicman kicked in the memory of that December 1978, the night that I think Doc first started working on the lyrics of what are now his Songs of the Doomed.
The American Dream ended bitterly on that cold evening for the nearly seven hundred people who milled around the lower three floors of the townhouse, thrilled that saloonkeeper Fred Moore and CBS heir Bill Paley Jr had convinced Derek and the Dominos to perform live and loud. The food from the Gandy Dancer restaurant was splendid, the wines were vintage and the drugs grown and manufactured by designers with PhDs in botany and chemistry. The acronyms HIV and AIDS were unknown and the only initials to cause anxiety were DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). The growing voices of America's neoconservative movement would later argue that their interpretation of the American Dream, long deferred because of people like Hunter S. Thompson and the satanic rhythms of rock'n'roll bands like Derek and the Dominos, began that night. The problem was that none of the guests who were downstairs enjoying the largesse of a liberal translation of American Constitutional guarantees knew that a fundamental change in the moral and political tone of their world was taking place upstairs.
It was an eclectic and extremely stoned crowd that had assembled for the annual National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) party in the American capital. Although Ronald Reagan was poised to become the arbiter of the collective conscience of America, Jimmy Carter was still President and social liberalism was in full swing—or so those gathered to celebrate … victories for civil liberty in America's courts and legislatures wanted to believe. The house was richly appointed and hotly packed with congressmen, lawyers, physicians, lobbyists, artists, journalists, dope dealers, sports figures and activists of every dogmatic bent, race and biochemical preference. I must be extremely careful in describing what happened next. My attorney Gerry Goldstein of Texas (whose piquant wisdom and expertise in Constitutional law Doc describes in Songs) tells me that it's best not to be too detailed about events that might lead to arguing the fine points of a statute of limitation in front of the current US Supreme Court. It's like Doc warns in his new book:
Today: the Doctor Tomorrow: You.
Nonetheless, this very senior official in the Carter White House allowed a woman the wires later described as 'the lady from Peru' to stick a half-dozen spoonfuls of Bolivian cocaine up his Oval Office nostrils. It was the snort heard round America and the sound ignited a series of horrible nationwide news reports and twisted political events that led to the total humiliation of Jimmy Carter and his presidency and a national witch hunt for combat liberals. (As the American philosopher Yogi Berra once said to those who want confirmation of the obvious, 'you can look it up.') But what Doc said to me as we watched that scene play out 13 years ago still rings as the most prophetic warning I've heard about the closing decades of the 20th century: 'Jesus, Craig, we're all going to die or be indicted now!'
By the time Ronald Reagan entered his second term, I'd been out of America for nearly four years, writing about events taking place in Europe and points East from the relative safety of the foreign desk. Doc sent a note saying that there was a lot of wreckage piling up in the fast lane. Many of our friends were dead or jailed or in the process of withering away because they couldn't find either an antidote to their own excesses or a remedy for Reagan's toxification of America. There was no melancholy in Doc's words—there never has been any sadness—just the durability and vigour of a sailor trying to repair the torn canvas and shattered spars of his ship during the turmoil of a storm. Doc's a good sailor—and he's always been the champion of the underdog and God bless him for it. It's nothing less than an adventure being on the road with Doc, or even sitting in the Woody Creek Tavern, Doc in his baby wolf hat, sipping whisky and talking about how it's best for writers and journalists to steer a course headlong into the political maelstrom. 'Happy with whatever ripples I caused in the great swamp of history,' he explains. One of the tempests Doc writes about in Songs is the Florida criminal trial of dishevelled Palm Beach heiress and cocaine slut Roxanne Pulitzer, and his words on that abominable scene richly echo the gnarled politics that have both paralysed America as a whole and effectively crippled the one thing that Doc holds so dear—the craft of journalism.
Not even the rich feel safe from the wreckage, Doc writes in Songs,
and people are looking for reasons. The smart say they can't understand it, and the dumb snort cocaine in rich discos and stomp to a feverish beat. Which is heard all over the country, or at least felt … Journalism is a Ticket to Ride, to get personally involved in the same news other people watch on TV—which is nice, but it won't pay the rent, and people who can't pay their rent in the Eighties are going to be in trouble. We are into a very nasty decade, a brutal Darwinian crunch that will not be a happy time.
Doc's always said that when the going gets weird the weird turn pro. The difference between Doc and the rest of us is that he always sees the strange coming down as reality before anyone else—he first proposed to write a book on the death of the American Dream in 1967, a time when the only place you'd see 'Darwinian crunch' printed was on the cocktail menu at Trader Vic's. Doc's journalism operates on a level that makes the Establishment uneasy and gives its political pronouncements all the congruity of powdered chalk. Every major media outlet claims to report the truth; they must. The whole business of American journalism is based on the certainty of Truth. What Doc realises is that Truth has become a commodity to be bought, sold or spun into whatever cloth the highest bidder decides. The academics call this process intellectual mendacity, the Papists call it Obedience of the Spirit, the politicians call it Conventional Wisdom, and we in journalism call it Objectivity.
American journalism has one rule: a reporter can go as far as he likes so long as he keeps Objectivity and editorial tradition in sight. But Objective political reporting on the American condition over the past twenty years has not had a history of being overwhelmingly accurate. Every reporter lies awake at night knowing that the editorial system that prints his words will not—with rare exceptions—let him write from the gut; that same writer is also trying to figure how best to balance, without getting fired, the Truth he's hearing with the reality he's experiencing. Anyone who has worked on an American newspaper or magazine will tell you, usually no later than the second drink, that reporting and editing events for American consumption during the Reagan-Bush years has turned into a spin-doctoring war between Them & Us, Truth versus Reality.
Now great care must be taken in illuminating this very real political, economic and artistic rift taking place all across America, as well as the problems that go along with reporting on the rupture. It's at this illustrative juncture in the story that the sophists start preaching dogmatics, the out-of-work bricklayers open up with full-auto AK-47s on thirty people in a McDonald's lunch line, and the argument over how to define and apply Constitutional freedoms begins to turn ugly.
Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr, the great liberal Southern jurist on the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, who former Alabama Governor George Wallace called an 'integrating, carpet-bagging, scalawagging, bald-faced liar', explained the flammable Constitutional argument over Them v. Us when he wrote:
Religious differences, race differences, sex differences, age differences and political differences are not the same. It is no mark of intellectual soundness to treat them as if they were. Moreover, if the life of the law has been experience, then the law should be realistic enough to treat certain issues as special: racism is special in American history. A judiciary that cannot declare that is of little value.
The Conventional Wisdom of the American body politic dictates that any distinction between Them & Us or Truth & Reality implies the existence of a Constitutional chasm that creates a crack in the Great American Melting Pot. To write about this abyss with any reality, goes the Conventional Wisdom, smacks of either psychological instability, complex and absurd conspiracy theories, or personal and unpopular political agendas on the part of the individual. Just recall the number of affronted and indignant senators during the Clarence Thomas hearings who refused to believe the reality that women sexually harassed by their bosses don't quit their jobs because they need the money.
The social spark for Constitutional provocation is much simpler than any concocted intrigue: They have their world and We have ours—the two overlap nicely, but they don't completely coincide in some very significant and eruptive areas. 'Gonzo'—which uses phrases such as 'water wit' and 'brain dead' to describe what the New York Times national desk referred to as 'the senior senator from Utah' during the Judge Thomas hearings—is the often fatal condition that strikes a reporter when he discovers that reality's hard lump overwhelms the Truths that make up the Conventional Wisdom. 'Gonzo … the phrase worked,' Doc explained. 'All of a sudden I had my own standing head.'
As Songs of the Doomed so spectacularly illustrates, Doc's the first American writer since John Dos Passos to tap the eroding and elemental fury within the American Dream and make the compost picture of American society in the last quarter of the 20th century work so elegantly on paper. I discovered two curious things about Doc's writing when I was his editor at Esquire magazine. His songs require very little (if any) editing, and his words and images are so powerful that they scare the bejesus out of the Conventional Wisdom because his pen seems to have been dipped in the same inkwell used by the hellscribes who wrote the Old Testament. Doc never forgot that the only weapon truly feared by the Philistines is the jawbone of an ass. His philosophy is to never apologise, never explain. Ralph Steadman, who continues to hold the world record for stepping into the fray as Doc's Joshua, sums up the feeling best when he says here: 'Hunter may be the reincarnation of Lono—the God returned after 1500 years of wandering like a lovesick child to save his people—and his beloved American Constitution … He is your saviour and he is guardian of all you profess to hold dear. In his weirdness he illuminates the faults in your reason and etches the silhouettes of your antics against a pure white background like Balinese shadow puppets.'
Diagnosing the American condition from his perch at the Owl Farm, screaming at his pet peacocks to shut up or be shot until the dobermans ate them, all Doc had to do during the Eighties was aim his giant satellite receiver toward the heavens to pull down the network news and watch the Great American Dream turn into the Great American Scheme. By the mid-Eighties the age of Fear & Loathing hit America with such a vengeance that it even shocked Doc. Las Vegas—where Hunter had first gone in the summer of 1971 on a busman's vacation that turned into a 'savage journey into the heart of the American Dream'—was now the site of the annual Southern Baptist Convention. Not only had the weird turned pro, but a few thousand holy rollers hauling wooden crosses on their backs were going door-to-door and casino-to-casino to convert their Philistines. Fear & Loathing had turned into a national charismatic anarchy, leaving those who had 'reaped the whirlwind and rode the tiger' of the Seventies to 'dance with the doom' of the Eighties.
When Doc first gained real national attention in the early Seventies for what the Establishment called his bizarre and repulsive views on Richard Nixon and the 1972 Presidential campaign he constituted a real problem for the American press—specifically, those pundits, political tastemakers, and powerbrokers who lived within the pernicious confines of the Beltway that surrounds Washington. Doc had already written two books and served hard time as a New Jersey sports columnist, Air Force non-com, and Latin American correspondent for the defunct National Observer before getting into national politics. And his books, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and Hells Angels, tapped a nerve in the American psyche so powerful that by the time he hit the campaign trail the Establishment could only portray the realities he wrote about as an example of the level to which public discourse had sunk.
Hunter certainly rode out the Seventies with unimaginable success and, maybe because of it, the manner in which his reputation ('Lear's fool' and 'Washington's hair shirt' are two that come to mind) was misused by others out to make a quick buck in the Eighties smothered the dignity of his words and the exemplary precision of his thought. There's even a guy at a university in Florida who's been given money to write Doc's biography—a great honour to be sure, but such an exchange of cash in these bare-boned times is a sure sign of someone pushing the idea that a literary life is over. A lot of people in the journalism business will tell you that Doc disappeared and that his writing suffered after Nixon resigned as his Baldrick and Hollywood released Where the buffalo roam, the wretched and forgettable movie loosely based on Doc's life. Actually, Doc's columns in the San Francisco Examiner were so good during the Eighties that his words scared a lot of people; so dead centre in aim that Songs is an astonishing collection of old newspaper reportage and new personal anecdote; at once so beautiful, horrifying and profound that those reading it will never again see the USA in quite the same way.
Nor should they. Hunter S. Thompson is America, and anyone who truly wants a grip on the dread and chaos the Philistines have used for the past 20 years to hoodwink the Land of Liberty and Justice for All needs to read Songs of the Doomed: part political atlas, part morning paper and part adventure novel, Songs is three remarkable books on the fatal condition of America. Hunter's a journalist first and foremost, and he's one of the last honest members of a profession blackened and lame from 11 years of Reagan/Bush spin-doctoring. Reporters and social observers of Doc's calibre were not so much forced out of the scene as politically pummelled underground during the Eighties. As usual, Doc ascertained this trend was coming long before anyone else. He first detected the drift on the day he picked Jimmy Carter to be President—the day Doc calls his Leap of Faith.
'I had already picked Carter in '74,' Doc writes in Songs:
It was a special assignment as everything was after Saigon. I was still on the [Rolling Stone] masthead. It was an honour roll of journalists, but the people on it—well, all of them were no longer with Rolling Stone. I didn't like that they put on the cover that I endorsed Carter. I picked him as a gambler. Endorsing isn't something a journalist should do. [Rolling Stone] was an Outlaw magazine in California. In New York it became an Establishment magazine and I have never worked well with people like that.
Not only were the 'people like that' beginning to assume control of American journalism: they were taking over the few publications left with the money to bankroll Doc and handle his velocity. By the beginning of 1981, Esquire magazine was the last bastion of mass-market independent thought in America with enough money to let Doc loose. The late editor Harold Hayes, who navigated Esquire's editorial department through the Sixties and early Seventies, made the monthly periodical into a great American magazine because he refused to allow his editors and writers to perceive any issue as taboo. Every outlaw and political persuasion was welcome in offices still electric with the soul of Ernest Hemingway, the flaming passion of James Baldwin, and the force and animation of Mailer, Wolfe, Vidal, Buckley, Burroughs and Genet. The editors who followed Hayes, men like Byron Dobell and the late Don Erickson, carried on the tradition, ensuring that each new generation of editors understood that Esquire's mandate was to remain on the cutting edge of journalism and literature. Although Hayes was long gone from Esquire by the time I became an editor at the magazine, shortly after joining the staff he sent me a congratulatory postcard and an invitation to join him for lunch at the Russian Tea Room. Hayes told me that the single most important quality an Esquire editor or contributor needed was the ability to smile through the apocalypse. And no one knew how to do that better then Hunter.
But the Generation of Swine, Doc's collective noun for the Wall Street weasels and Beltway bums who managed, manipulated and mauled the American Dream during the money-mad Eighties, had taken over Esquire by the time Hunter came back to our pages in 1981. The magazine's new owners were set on turning Esquire into a Cosmopolitan for men with such exceedingly low testosterone levels that management forced us to run a turgid monthly column in which an Esquire editor went on a date with some Hollywood starlet in the hope that a kernel of carnal knowledge could be picked up and transmitted to guys who were having a hard time getting laid. Doc's high-octane prose of the Cuba-to-Key West Freedom Flotilla just didn't fit alongside the smarm stories and columns crafted for no other reason than to keep advertisers content and Reagan Washington impressed. Spiking such stories was as much a difference of style as of philosophy. One camp wanted to publish a consequential magazine, knowing that exciting writing on controversial topics and a robust exchange of ideas had historically cultivated readers and advertisers. But the new management remained intent on publishing a fuzzy/warm consumer guide for the male ego in which political contention of any sort spelled financial turmoil. Slowly but with precision, management replaced Esquire's editors with account executives. The MBAs said this trend made financial sense. 'Why are you spending $5000 in expenses sending Thompson to Key West when the story he's there to write will be covered on television?' a furious Esquire ad exec asked me at the time. 'The big money is to be had publishing low-cost advertorials and tying our other coverage into the kinds of stories that we can use as sales tools to get advertisements.' Controversy, courage and passion were out. Money, power and greed were in.
There was no real solution to the baffling problem of editorial integrity without the money to pay for it, and the only certainty that anyone who visited with Doc could agree on was that a lot of voices were being dropped suddenly and too many people who should have known better were grimly accepting the tragedy as the cost of getting a paycheck. Journalists had become the servants of Reagan America, some more willingly than others, but enough had been signed on or shanghaied to persuade the public that any economic ill or social problem facing the country could be fixed by throwing a patriotic parade or giving a Federally-funded abortion clinic counsellor ten years in jail for advising a woman on her legitimate rights. The Constitution had been turned inside out; and, in the process, the American Dream was smothered by a complacent system of social justice based on politically-motivated criminal investigations, by an apathetic system of economic justice which dictated that people be turned away from hospital for lack of insurance, and by a political system so desperate for something to believe in that it needed to legislate an individual's belief in God and a disbelief in any artistic form that suggested otherwise. Doc uses a sly passage to ride down this nasty undercurrent in Songs. He says the one problem the rich have never solved is 'how to live in peace with the servants. Sooner or later, the maid has to come into the bedroom, and if you're only paying her $150 a week, she is going to come in hungry, or at least curious, and the time is long past when it was legal to cut their tongues out to keep them from talking.'
They never could cut out Doc's tongue, so They did the next best thing. I was in northern Russia, hunting bear out of Archangel when a colleague from Moscow arrived with the package Gerry Goldstein had sent me from Aspen. The news was not good. Doc had been charged with possession of drugs and dynamite, and sexual assault. 'Hunter S. Thompson, in an episode reminiscent of some of his books, has been charged with sexually assaulting a woman writer who came to his house ostensibly to interview him last week,' read the lead of the news report in the Aspen Times Daily dated 28 February 1990. A woman in the business of selling sexual aids and bad lingerie claimed that Doc threatened and beat her after she rebuffed his sexual advances. The ensuing search by police allegedly turned up a variety of drugs and explosives. The whole incident dripped of bad fish wrapped in cheap paper. In ironic spite of a reputation to the contrary and concocted by people who don't know him, Hunter S. Thompson has always been a gentleman. We tacked the news clipping to a tree, blew holes in it, and sent the remains back to Pitkin County Chief Deputy Attorney Chip McCrory.
Gerry Goldstein, Hal Haddon and a top team of attorneys and friends from the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers had Doc's hanging 'dismissed without prejudice' by the time I made back to the Owl Farm that Christmas. The Pitkin County DA was also under investigation by a special prosecutor for the felony crime of conspiracy to commit perjury. The bust was a set-up (Doc recounts the events surrounding his 'selective and malicious prosecution' in Songs), but Doc had been dragged through the streets and it was too late to stop the fantasy of Gail Palmer-Slater from becoming a part of the Legend of Lono, thereby obfuscating the real story that Doc's victory (and willingness to fight for his rights) was a victory for America, too. Such struggles are always there, but they are rarely acted on.
'There's hysteria running rampant in our nation's capital and our local statehouses,' Gerry Goldstein explains in Songs.
It's accompanied by serious talk of reducing citizen rights in an effort to combat the dreaded plague of drugs. To demagogue about drugs is certainly simpler, and much more popular, than the difficult task of balancing budgets. But escalating the punishment for drug offenders, bankrupting our state and national coffers warehousing these poor souls, will hardly solve our nation's social ills. It's only going to create more poverty. And poverty is a greater root cause of crime than drugs could ever hope to be.
No matter the mess, Doc was in vigorous spirit over the holiday season and Owl Farm was still spearheading the rebellion of the hanged. The old gang was together, the NFL playoffs were in full swing, and there was talk of heading off to the Superbowl, followed by a spring field trip to Moscow and the bear forests north. All that changed after I cabled Doc from Moscow about what I'd discovered about Lenin's brain and how the pre-coup KGB was asking questions about my writing and movements. 'This is a very weird story,' he wrote back, offering Owl Farm as a hideout for me to complete my Russia book, which was already being assailed by American and Soviet officials. 'I will fight to the death for yr Right to publish it. We are a free people, Craig, and if anybody tries to muzzle or croak you, or stifle yr song in any way at all, I will stab them in the nuts.'
Steadman's right. Hunter might well be the reincarnation of Lono—at least for those who believe that the social/political order should be prevented from locking men and women into values or rigid forms of consciousness that remain unquestioned. And that ain't preaching. We should feel damned lucky that the Good Doctor is hard at work up in the Woody Creek redoubt. Freedom's fate could not be in more passionate hands. Res ipsa Loquitur, Doc.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 246
SOURCE: A review of Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, in Booklist, Vol. 91, No. 3, October 1, 1994, p. 187.
[In the following review, Gaughan asserts that although Thompson's Better Than Sex is not better than his Fear and Loathing books, it is worthy of attention.]
At some point, people as diverse as John Wayne and the members of Aerosmith appeared to achieve a kind of wisdom when they began to parody themselves. There are hints in Better Than Sex that HST is winking—broadly—at us. Sure, he's still a vicious, twisted psychotic thug who can write that Richard Nixon was criminally insane from birth, but he also closes any number of preposterous gonzo screeds with the equally preposterous, "Take my word for it, Bubba. I was there." This is Thompson's take on Clinton's campaign and his first year in office—and its an outrage per page. Nobody escapes the good doctor's wrath: Bush is so guilty he makes Nixon look innocent; Clinton is a swine, but he's our swine; and Hillary is pilloried. Ross Perot, James Carville, Margaret Thatcher, James Baker III, Al Gore, and even Walter Cronkite also get savaged. Along the way, Thompson ruminates, occasionally quite shrewdly, nearly always hilariously, on politics, society, and of course, himself. Better Than Sex is not better than Thompson's great Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail or the gonzo bible Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Even so, a new book by Thompson is always an event.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248
SOURCE: A review of Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, in The New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1994, p. 18.
[In the following review, Ross praises Thompson's style but complains that his Better Than Sex is too disjointed.]
In Better Than Sex, Hunter S. Thompson has assembled a collection of mash notes—faxes to George Stephanopoulos, James Carville and others in the Clinton inner circle, missives that suggest Mr. Thompson's involvement in the Clinton Presidential campaign went beyond that of a mere observer. Mr. Thompson offers pointers on strategy and policy, even instructsthe candidate on speaking properly. Mr. Thompson is back in the form we've come to know and love (or at least tolerate), firing at the usual targets, from George Bush and James Baker 3d, the former Secretary of State, to Mr. Thompson's nemesis, Richard M. Nixon, who died just before the book was finished (but not before Mr. Thompson worked up a remembrance that may be charitably described as uncharitable). Such shooting from the hip is Mr. Thompson's forte; what disappoints in this book is its disjointedness. Better Than Sex reads like a hodgepodge, a series of dispatches hurriedly lashed together. But in his own cracked, inimitable style, Mr. Thompson proves to be an upbeat Jeremiah, a civic-minded curmudgeon. "It is a very elegant feeling," he writes, "to wake up in the morning and go down to your neighborhood polling place and come away feeling proud of the way you voted." Spoken like true patriot.
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SOURCE: "Rum Days, Acid Nights," in The Observer Review, No. 10607, February 5, 1995, p. 22.
[In the following review, Freely discusses Thompson's Better Than Sex and Paul Perry's unauthorized biography of Thompson and asserts that the gonzo journalist has lost his edge.]
When Peter Cook died, his friends kept apologising for his best comic acts not seeming so shocking anymore. You had to understand how strict the conventions were, and what an exhilarating shock it was to see him break them. To appreciate Hunter S Thompson's humour, as is clear from Better Than Sex, you also have to put yourself bak 20 years and remember just how much reverence the silent majority had then for people in office, and just how much faith in the redemptive powers of the party animal.
'Getting assigned to cover Nixon,' said Thompson while covering the '72 election campaign, was 'like being sentenced to six months in a Holiday Inn.' He preferred Wallace: 'The air was electric even before he started talking, and by the time he was five or six minutes into his spiel I had a sense that the bastard had somehow levitated himself and was hovering over us. It reminded me of a Janis Joplin concert.' His political allies were much harder to bear. Of Hubert Humphrey he said: 'He looks like he died in 1959 and has been frozen over ever since.' His least favourite was Ed Muskie, a 'mushmouth, middle-of-the-road compromiser', with staffers so fat that they had to be helped out of cars and lifts.
Like so many pioneers of the New, but now middle-aged, Journalism, Hunter S Thompson has never given much importance to fact and abhorred objectivity. The point of writing about current events was to explain what they did to his head. If he walked into a situation that was already stranger than fiction and acted badly to make things worse, the story only improved. And if his consciousness was altered by other substances, then so much the better. When he set out to research Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he claims to have packed 'two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescalin, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.'
Paul Perry's unauthorised but worryingly deadpan biography suggests that there is not much space between the real man and the self-made caricature. He was a troublemaker and practical joker even when he was a Louisville schoolboy. His first job in journalism was as a copyboy at Time magazine, but he quit when they refused to see him as foreign correspondent material.
His heroes were Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ginsberg and Kerouac—until he read The Ginger Man. He seems to have devoted the rest of his life to being the Ginger Man. He was horrible to his saintly wife. On a good day this meant cheating on her and telling her she was a bad housewife. On a bad day it meant beating her up in the presence of his publisher and then going out to Ken Kesey's place to witness a Hell's Angels' gang-bang. When she finally left him several decades too late, he was devastated, but had been on controlled-substance autopilot for too long to learn any new tricks.
Friends and fans still can't decide which drug it was that lost him his edge. He still makes plenty of money from his paint-by-numbers paranoia act, but the joy went out of it decades ago, as a quick look at Better Than Sex will show. He is too tired and emotional these days to spend much time on the trail itself: what he provides instead are the notes and faxes he wrote while watching CNN on his Colorado farm. He claims to have gone over to Clinton because of Gennifer Flowers, and then renewed his commitment after figuring out Clinton was also seeing the ghost of Marilyn Monroe. But in the end he decides Clinton is the 'Willy Loman of Generation X, a travelling salesman from Arkansas who has the loyalty of a lizard with its tail broken off and the midnight taste of a man who'd double-date with the Rev Jimmy Swaggart.'
He perks up when harking back to the good old days. He confesses to his son that he was the one who killed JFK, and recalls the bitter, farcical end of the McGovern campaign, in which a dingbat named Clinton was held responsible for losing 222 counties in Texas, terminated 'without pay, with prejudice,' and sent back to Arkansas. 'We'll never see that bastard again,' one aide is said to have said. 'He'll never work again, not in Washington.'
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 308
SOURCE: A review of Better Than Sex, in Rapport, Vol. 18, No. 5, 1995, p. 30.
[In the following review, the critic faults Thompson's Better Than Sex, saying, "The aim is true but the barbs not quite as lethal as his earlier literary death blows."]
As irreverent as a T-shirt in church and as illuminating as a wildfire, this Volume 4 of the author's Gonzo Papers is somehow not as focused, nor as forceful as the earlier installments. On any given weekend, this novelist/Rolling Stone correspondent is at the forefront of political reporting, but maybe after four consecutive collections on the same subject (not to mention everal earlier works) he needs to change lanes.
President Bill Clinton and his administration is the main target here, and Dr. Thompson does not miss. "Let's face it, Bubba. The main reason I'll vote for Bill Clinton is George Bush, and it has been that way from the start," explains the author about his allegiance to the Democratic camp. And on the President's indiscretions, he writes, "Of course Bill Clinton never inhaled when he put the bong to his lips. Of course he never knew Gennifer Flowers. Never admit anything except when you were born. Why should he? He is, after all, the President. And the President never acts weird."
The aim is true but the barbs not quite as lethal as his earlier literary death blows, particularly when the victim was Richard Nixon. Here, Hunter had prey worthy of his marksmanship, and even Thompson admits that the late President brought out the best (worst?) in him.
Writing with such seeming ease, he makes Better Than Sex read like a collection of his scribbled notes rather than the cutting and terse images he's conjured up in earlier political vehicles and his landmark work with Rolling Stone. A true Hunterite will enjoy this but not be overwhelmed.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1921
SOURCE: "The Mad Adventure Continues," in The Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1996, p. 1.
[In the following essay, McCumber discusses the impact of Thompson's work and his current projects.]
"I have weird dreams," Hunter Stockton Thompson says. "I never expected to be looking over my life, page by page. It's like an animal eating its own intestines."
It is 3:45 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and he is perched like a barn owl on a high stool in his kitchen, eating not innards but a TV dinner, microwaved and then slathered with a hellbroth of mysterious mustards, chutneys and chili sauces. The plate suddenly lows with an unearthly light. I take this at first to be the sign of a chemical reaction, but it is actually the work of Thompson's newest gadget—the man is a gadget freak—a motorized, illuminated pepper grinder. The spotlighted meal is rapidly covered with black flakes, sort of like Pittsburgh in the early 1900s.
This dish alone would probably give most people nightmares for a week, but the famed journalist says the weird dreams he's been having are a byproduct of a gratifying but grueling forced march through his past, caused by the 25th anniversary last month of the publication of his rolling pharmacy classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and also by the preparation of the first volume of his collected letters, due in the spring from Villard Books.
Mind you, he's enjoying himself. As he sups, he rolls videotape, and his big-screen TV flickers with images from several stops on the Hunter S. Thompson Fun-Finding Tour of the past few weeks: himself, strolling into Rolling Stone mogul Jann Wenner's office and blasting his longtime editor with a fire extinguisher; a mob scene at the party Wenner and Random House threw for him in New York, commemorating the reissuing of F&L in Vegas by the Modern Library; and speaking gigs at such disparate venues as Harvard Law School and Johnny Depp's Sunset Strip hipper-than-thou spot, the Viper Room.
Wait a minute. Rewind the tape. The Modern Library? Hunter S. Thompson, acid-swilling bad boy of American letters, rubbing literary shoulders with Proust and Dos Passos, Faulkner and Fitzgerald?
You bet, bubba. It was inevitable. Not only has Thompson cranked out a stream of bestsellers (Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine, Songs of the Doomed, Better Than Sex), but along the way he has become revered for his political acuity, personal excesses and utterly inimitable prose style.
Hell's Angels was hailed as a groundbreaking book in 1967, and Las Vegas seared the country four years later with what the New York Times called "a kind of mad, corrosive prose poetry that picks up where Norman Mailer … left off and explores what Tom Wolfe left out."
So when everybody from Wolfe to Mick Jagger to Matt Dillon to Depp to Ralph Steadman, his illustrator and frequent coconspirator, showed up to honor him in New York, the Modern Library anointing was placed in clear perspective: Thompson has pulled off the difficult trick of being an icon of not only his own generation but of the ones that have followed.
Add to all this adulation the fact that Rhino Films, an off-shoot of Rhino Records, has just announced plans to translate Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the screen (with Depp playing Thompson), and it becomes evident that the Doctor of Gonzo is on a serious roll.
Surprised? So is he, in a way. "I never expected to live this long," Thompson jokes, "and a lot of other people didn't expect me to either."
The rather startling truth is that Thompson, 59, seems to have come out of that crazed quarter of a century in champion form. He has always had the constitution of a moose (he is from stout Kentucky hill country stock), and the poster boy for the drug culture seems poised to continue his craft well into the next century.
For now, there is a book to get to press.
Thompson finishes his late lunch, or early breakfast, or whatever, pours himself a tumbler of Chivas and turns his attention to a mock-up of the dust jacket for The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, subtitled The Fear & Loathing Letters, Volume I, 1955–67. ("Volume II will make some people wish that wolves had stolen them from their cradles," Thompson cracks with glee.) The book features an introduction by the novelist William Kennedy, a longtime Thompson friend and confidant.
It is just one more surprise that throughout Thompson's rather turbulent life, he has kept a carbon of every letter he has written—amounting to several thousand pages of typescript. He is an inveterate correspondent, and the letters provide not only illuminating insights into his development as a literary figure, his personal life and his impressions of the culture of the times, but by sheer volume represent a major percentage of his life's work.
"RED HERE," Thompson scrawls on the proof. "Too Big," "Kill photo on spine" and "Outline with gold here" quickly follow. He is, after all, a visual artist as well as a writer. (His bullet-riddled, paint-spattered images of prominent figures command five-figure prices.)
It is 5 a.m. and Dr. Thompson's workday is progressing nicely. He finishes his design instructions and picks up the telephone, which he is famed for using as a lethal weapon. This time, the target is friendly: Douglas Brinkley, the book's editor.
After a thoroughgoing discussion of the manuscript's status, talk turns to an upcoming tribute to Thompson in his hometown of Louisville. Plans are in place: Warren Zevon will open the show; George McGovern has said he will attend; the venue has been changed to the city's finest concert hall to accommodate an expected crowd of nearly 2,000; he is booked into the presidential suite at the elegant Brown Hotel; his mother will be whisked to the event by limousine; and the same local government that once locked Thompson up as a juvenile delinquent will present him with a key to the city.
At 6:20, things get ugly over the telephone. He is trying to call a friend at the University of Indiana, and the switchboard should have opened 20 minutes earlier, but for some reason the nighttime recorded message is still on.
"I want to know why you people aren't at work," he snarls into the telephone. "You are answerable to the taxpayers, you know. What's the matter with you? I will find out who you are and why you're still asleep. Get a grip on yourself."
He slams down the telephone. The ghost of a little-boy grin flashes, then departs just as quickly. Thompson freshens his drink and moves to the next item on the agenda: a little fun. He cranks a sheet of paper into his typewriter (yes, he plays around with a hopped-up Macintosh, even surfs the Internet, but when it's time for work, it's the Selectric every time) and raps out the following:
This waiting is driving me crazy. I miss you so much I can scream. Soon I will get my hands on you. I have a huge brain tumor. We can get naked and go out to the car…. Sweet Dreams—Zan."
A chuckle escapes his throat as he proofreads this horrifying missive (entire contents cannot be included here). He couples it with a photocopied portrait of a woman with an impressive array of body piercings and signs it with a lipsticked, puckered mouth print. Within minutes, it is winging through the fax lines to various people in his Rolodex: several reporters and a network news executive; a White House staffer; the mayor of Aspen, Colo.; and then, for good measure, several randomly selected souls who will get a nasty shock upon waking simply because their numbers happen to be programmed into Thompson's machine. "The fat is in the fire," he says. "The flute is in the wind."
It's no accident that Aspen's mayor is one of the unfortunate recipients. Ever since Thompson ran for Pitkin County Sheriff in 1970 and lost by a handful of votes, he has been deeply involved in local politics and now is by far the most influential political figure in the county. When he takes a position on an issue, it results in front-page headlines in Aspen's newspapers. He proved his power a year ago when he took on the skiing and business establishments, spear-heading a fight against expansion of the Aspen airport—and won by a margin of more than a thousand votes.
But the victory carried a price. Just after 2 a.m. that election day, Thompson was returning from the climactic antiairport rally when an Aspen police officer pulled him over. A Breathalyzer test indicated that he wasn't legally drunk, but Thompson was eventually charged with a misdemeanor, driving while impaired. The arresting officer said he stopped Thompson because he had driven six inches over the yellow line for about 40 feet. Thompson could have pleaded guilty and paid a $50 fine, but he charged that the arrest was clearly political, and has been fighting the case ever since.
"I'm spending $30,000 to $40,000 fighting a misdemeanor traffic ticket because this case is about whether a rogue cop has the right to stop people for no good reason," Thompson says. "It's a political bust and I will win."
A trial has been set for March. City officials declined to comment on the case. On this morning, Thompson calls one of his lawyers, criminal defense superstar Gerald Goldstein.
"I don't want them to drop the charges," Thompson tells Goldstein. "I want the cop to go on trial first, then me." He closes with an aphorism straight out of the '60s: "Today's pig is tomorrow's bacon."
You get the feeling that Thompson, a self-confessed political junkie, is getting his fix in the only arena possible. He declined to cover the presidential campaign this year because it was so lackluster. "I don't know if national politics will ever be fun again," he says.
What will he do for fun? Well, there is a novel—working title, "Polo Is My Life"—that Thompson hopes to resume once all the fuss dies down. Thompson has always blurred the lines between journalism and literature, and whether he approaches his work as fiction or nonfiction, the result is sure to be interesting.
The late Edward Abbey, no slouch at both approaches himself, said it succinctly when he commented on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas years ago: "Among journalists I have but one hero, and that is Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. I honor him because he reports the simple facts, in plain language, of what he sees around him. His style is mistaken for fantastic drug-crazed exaggeration, but that was to be expected. As always in this country, they only laugh at you when you tell the truth. He is really much more than a journalist. Not a journalist at all, but one who sees—a seer."
It is 8 a.m. Dr. Thompson's friend at the University of Indiana calls back, unnerved by the message left on the machine. A couple of responses to the fax have also come in. The original faxes were sent anonymously, bearing no return name or number, but it seems that the style is quite unmistakable.
It is daylight now, and a light snow is falling. "Let's gas up the Jeep and go to town," Hunter Thompson says, and the grin returns. "I'll show you where I crossed the yellow line."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 222
SOURCE: A review of The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, in The New York Times Book Review, July 13, 1997.
[In the following review, Kaiser calls Thompson's The Proud Highway "neither particularly interesting nor particularly well-written."]
In the introduction to this nearly 700-page collection of the letters of Hunter S. Thompson, the novelist William J. Kennedy provides a useful definition of the "gonzo journalism" that made Thompson famous. "It was not lunacy defined," Kennedy writes, "but lunacy imagined: in short, a novel." Unfortunately, in these pages Thompson most often cnfines himself to the mundane facts of his everyday life between 1955 (when he was 17 years old) and 1967 (following the publication of Hell's Angels), and the results are generally underwhelming. Occasionally we see flashes of humor or intelligence, but for vast stretches we are subjected to observations like these: "I have paid my rent for one month. The apartment seemed horrible at first, but I've been working on it most of the day, and it looks a little better now." Most of the more than 200 letters included in this volume—the first of a projected three—are neither particularly interesting nor particularly well written. There is not enough here to sustain the interest of a Hunter S. Thompson fan—only a fanatic would want to plow through all the way to the end.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038
SOURCE: "Letters of the Young Author (He Saved Them All)," in The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1997.
[In the following review, Bernstein discusses Thompson's need to record his life and share it with the public in The Proud Highway.]
One thing that this collection of letters makes clear at the outset is that Hunter S. Thompson, he of the Fear and Loathing books, for whom the phrase "gonzo journalist" was invented, has always burned to carve his initials onto the collective awareness. What other kind of person would, beginning in his teen years, make carbon copies of every letter he wrote—to his mother, his Army friends and commanding officers, his girlfriends, his various agents and editors—specifically in the hope that they would be published?
Mr. Thompson, by dint of hard work and enormous talent, has gotten his wish. Edited by Douglas Brinkley and adorned with a sparkling essay by the novelist William J. Kennedy, The Proud Highway takes Mr. Thompson's caustic, furious, funny, look-at-me correspondence through 1967, when the author, having arrived on the scene with his book Hell's Angels, was 30. It is noteworthy that although just one in seven of the relevant cache of letters was included, this book, labeled The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume I, weighs in at just under 700 pages—and there are still 30 more years to go. Even some of the photographs of Mr. Thompson were taken by the author himself, self-portraits of the writer at work and at play. Manifestly, this is a man who, while anti-snobbish to a fault, abusively contemptuous of self-promotion and pretension, had a powerful need to make a record of himself and to make that record public.
Fortunately, the maverick vibrancy and originality of the record's creator fully redeems what might otherwise have been an act of egomaniacal temerity. The Hunter S. Thompson that emerges in this collection of his letters, complemented by fragments of his other writings, is very much the unrestrained, strenuously nonconformist, Lone Ranger journalist who achieved cult status long ago.
One thinks of Mr. Thompson a bit as one thinks of the hero of George Macdonald Fraser's fictional Flashman books, Flashman rampaging like Don Quixote through the major events of the 19th century, making them his own. Mr. Hunter rampaged through the 60's and 70's of this century, not reporting on them in any conventional sense but using them as raw material for the text that was his own life.
Taken together, as Mr. Brinkley correctly points out in his editor's note, the Thompson correspondence is "an informal and offbeat history of two decades in American life," the two decades in question having produced the counterculture that Mr. Thompson both chronicled and helped produce. The overriding sensibility, inherited from H.L. Mencken, consists of an eloquent, hyperbolic impatience with the supposed mediocrity of American life, its Rotarian culture, its complacency and its pieties.
"Young people of America, awake from your slumber of indolence and harken the call of the future!" the 18-year-old Mr. Thompson wrote in the first piece reproduced in this book, taken from the yearbook of the Louisville Male High School in Kentucky. "I'm beginning to think you're a phony, Graham," Mr. Hunter writes eight years later in 1963, the Graham in question being Philip L. Graham, president of the Washington Post Company. Mr. Hunter, a freelancer writing articles from South America, was moved to a rage by an article in Newsweek, owned by The Washington Post, that was critical of The National Observer, which was publishing his work.
This, evidently, was a guy who took no guff, whose Ayn Rand-influenced determination to do things his way required not only that he make no compromises but that he be seen as making none. Graham invited Mr. Hunter to "write me a somewhat less breathless letter, in which you tell me about yourself," and Mr. Thompson did so. He compliments his correspondent on the "cavalier tone that in some circles would pass for a very high kind of elan" but warns him against interpreting his letter as "a devious means of applying for a job on the assembly line at Newsweek, or covering speeches for The Washington Post. I sign what I write, and I mean to keep on signing it."
By 1967, Mr. Thompson, who has risen in the world, is blasting others for nincompoopery and knavishness. "I have every honest and serious intention of wreaking a thoroughly personal and honest vengeance on Scott Meredith himself, in the form of cracking his teeth with a knotty stick and rupturing every other bone and organ I can make contact with in the short time I expect will be allotted to me," he writes in a letter to his editor at Random House, speaking of the literary agent whom he has just, in any case, dismissed. "I am probably worse than you think, as a person, but what the hell?" he wrote to Meredith. "When I get hungry for personal judgment on myself, I'll call for a priest."
Mr. Thompson is not always making symbolic threats. This volume shows him as a loyal and clever friend devoted to sporting, high-spirited repartee. It shows him also as a stingingly good stylist as well as a hard-drinking, gun-toting adventurer who never loses his sense of humor even when he is being bitten by South American beetles or stomped on by members of an American motorcycle gang. The letters and other fragments in this collection are invested with the same rugged, outspoken individualism as his more public writings, which make them just as difficult to put down.
What makes them ever more irresistible is that they lend substance to the legend of his life as an ultimate countercultural romance. If books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas conveyed the image of a handsome young man riding his motorcycle at 100 miles an hour on the defiant highway of the untrammeled life, this collection of his private statements will show that the image was true.
"The most important thing a writer can have," he wrote to a friend when he was 21, is "the ability to live with constant loneliness and a strong sense of revulsion for the banalities of everyday socializing." Evidently, he meant what he said.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77
McKeen, William. Hunter S. Thompson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991, 120-27.
Provides information about Thompson's life and career.
"Hunter S. Thompson." Vanity Fair 57, No. 9 (September 1994): 214.
A brief sketch in which Thompson answers questions about his life
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