Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470
Hunter S(tockton) Thompson 1939–2005
(Has also written under pseudonyms Sebastian Owl and Raoul Duke) Autobiographer, author of fiction and nonfiction, journalist, and editor.
Thompson's work depicts the aftermath of the explosion of the American Dream. Despite his iconoclasm, he is considered essentially conservative, a righteous citizen who sets high moral...
(The entire section contains 13049 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Hunter S(tockton) Thompson 1939–2005
(Has also written under pseudonyms Sebastian Owl and Raoul Duke) Autobiographer, author of fiction and nonfiction, journalist, and editor.
Thompson's work depicts the aftermath of the explosion of the American Dream. Despite his iconoclasm, he is considered essentially conservative, a righteous citizen who sets high moral standards for society's leaders, especially politicians. Their failures often trigger the indignation and black humor which distinguish his books.
Because he blurs the distinction between fact and fiction in his work, Thompson cannot easily be categorized. He turns reality into fantasy and real people into characters in order to mirror and comment on the madness of contemporary culture. As his own central character, Thompson becomes a barometer of the excesses he describes.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Heart of the American Dream is Thompson's best-known work. A tall tale of how Thompson and his lawyer friend attempted to cover two news stories while stoned on an arsenal of drugs, it gave Thompson a reputation as a decadent outlaw while also establishing him as a writer of creativity and imagination. It also introduced the iconoclastic literary style Thompson has dubbed "gonzo journalism," a form which depends on vituperation and insult to make its points while concentrating on the novelistic demand for truth and the journalistic demand for fact.
With Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of journalism reports first published in Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson attempted to capture the immediacy of political events before they began to be viewed in retrospect. This work applied Thompson's "gonzo" style to the often mundane facts of the campaign. Critics called it overly subjective in its canonization of McGovern and its condemnation of Nixon, and it was criticized for ignoring many of the facts, but its unique approach and clear concern for the country's welfare were praised, as was Thompson's success in capturing background detail.
It has been said of Thompson that he writes best when the country is at its worst, such as in the period of Nixon's presidency. Some critics feel that Thompson and his style are becoming outmoded, since he is so closely associated with the major events of the 1960s and early 1970s. His latest book, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time, a retrospective collection of excerpts from his earlier books and journalistic reprints, has been criticized for its lack of innovation and freshness. Throughout his career, Thompson's writing has been called self-indulgent, grating, and inaccurate. However, for the many young people who have made him into a cult figure, Thompson's position as a believable commentator on the decline of society appears unshaken, and for them his popularity shows little sign of diminishing. (See also CLC, Vol. 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
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The easy acceptance of violence lends to ["Hell's Angels"] a cartoon quality. We observe Angels brutalizing themselves and others and somehow we expect them to recover as quickly as the cartoon cat and mouse. It's not that Thompson doesn't give us a vivid picture of brawls and orgies. His language is brilliant, his eye is remarkable, and his point of view is reminiscent of Huck Finn's. He'll look at anything; he won't compromise his integrity. Somehow his exuberance and innocence are unaffected by what he sees. (pp. 6, 44)
Hunter Thompson has presented us with a close view of a world most of us would never dare encounter, yet one with which we should be familiar. (p. 44)
Leo E. Litwak, "On the Wild Side," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 29, 1967, pp. 6, 44.
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[Hell's Angels] shows the extent to which, in our society, the individual needs protection against himself as well as against others. This is a reporter's account of approximately a year spent in contact with the California gang of motorcycle outlaws…. Thompson complains that the news media have exaggerated the extent to which the Angels terrorize the communities through which they ride. But his lurid narrative, despite its sympathy for his subjects, reveals the threat they pose.
Speed, violence, sex, and drugs are the outlets of absolute individualists committed to total defiance of society. "There is more to their stance than a wistful yearning for acceptance in a world they never made. Their real motivation is an instinctive certainty as to what the score really is. They are out of the ball-game and they know it…. The outlaw motorcyclist views the future with the baleful eye of a man with no upward mobility at all…. The Hell's Angels are obvious losers, and it bugs them. But instead of submitting quietly to their collective fate, they have made it the basis of a full-time social vendetta. They don't expect to win anything, but on the other hand, they have nothing to lose."
The fallacy lies in the inaccuracy of the appraisal. Thompson makes much of the fact that the Angels are war babies, the offspring of the uprooted Okies and Arkies of the Depression. But what forces in personal and family life led them to the road, while others attained the split-level luxury of the California way of life, remain unclear.
Oscar Handlin, "Life & Letters: 'Hell's Angels'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1967, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 219, No. 2, February, 1967, p. 129.
There is nothing in print that provides as accurate a description or as plausible an analysis of that chilling mid-20th-century phenomenon known as the Hell's Angels [as does Hell's Angels: a Strange and Terrible Saga]. Thompson's authority derives both from his standing as a top freelance writer and from his hard-won inside knowledge of the Angels' way of life—violence, sex, and "outlaw" motorcycling. He has produced a fascinating account of how a nearly defunct band of motorcycle hoodlums was raised to national prominence by sensationalist and inaccurate journalism. This is, however, no apologia…. The book should have the widest reader appeal, and should be a must for students of crime, deviance, and social problems—undergraduate, graduate, and indeed anyone concerned with understanding and controlling genuine outlaws.
"Sociology and Anthropology: 'Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga'," in Choice (copyright © 1967 by American Library Association), Vol. 4, No. 4, June, 1967, p. 484.
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I guess you'd best forget trying to understand the rationale behind Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to The Heart of the American Dream." Never mind if you don't wholly agree with him when he writes that "Every now and then when you life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas." Don't worry if it strikes you as odd to respond to the nightmare of certain middle-America realities by internalizing them with the aid of grass, mescaline, acid, downers, screamers, laughers, tequila, rum beer, ether and amyls….
Don't let it throw you if you can't buy Mr. Thompson's doomsday sociology about "this doomstruck era of Nixon."… Don't even bother if you find unbelievable the mad adventurers reported here. Just try to accept Hunter S. Thompson on his own terms….
Why should you bother to accept Mr. Thompson on his own terms, especially when what goes on in these pages makes Lenny Bruce seem angelic? Well, because it's kind of awesome when the huge bats begin to flap over the desert and the pterodactyls start stomping around in blood. Because it's bizzare when Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo … infiltrate a district attorneys' convention on Dangerous Drugs and Narcotics…. Because it's not entirely untrue that the reality that Vegas offered up to them—with "The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley" blaring over radios and the "344-pound police chief from Waco, Texas, necking openly with his 290-pound wife …" might have been just a little more disorienting than an acid trip; so why not bomb out? And because the whole book boils down to a kind of mad, corrosive prose poetry that picks up where Norman Mailer's "An American Dream" left off and explores what Tom Wolfe left out. Besides, it's—gulp—funny.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Heinous Chemicals at Work," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1972, p. 37.
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Bad craziness. Dangerous lunacy. Permanent hysteria. But especially bad craziness. That is Hunter S. Thompson's real destination on his "savage journey to the heart of the American dream," and you know it from the first moment the drug-addled duo heave into view….
[Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream] is a trip, literally and figuratively, all the way to bad craziness and back again.
It is also the most brilliant piece of writing about the dope subculture since Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and, at the same time, and acid, wrenchingly funny portrait of straight America's most celebrated and mean-spirited pleasure-dome, Las Vegas….
If you don't take it all on faith, Fear and Loathing comes off as the wretched excess of the year—an overwritten, underedited, foul-mouthed, drug-crazed screed. But if you do suspend your disbelief and climb out on that precarious psychic limb with Thompson and, once there, slosh down great quantities of Wild Turkey and Chivas Regal, vicariously smoke grass, snort coke, shoot smack, break open amyls, and go without sleeping for, say, 70 hours at a stretch, then and only then Fear and Loathing comes off as a mad, manic masterpiece. But in fact, Fear and Loathing is both raving screed and manic masterpiece. If that's not enough, just read it for the survivor emotion….
Is any of it true? Whether it is matters less in the end than the impression that it seems true—in the same way that the scatological shticks of Lenny Bruce or his predecessor in monolog, Lord Buckley, seemed true. Thompson has obviated the traditional journalistic demands for fact by concentrating on the novelistic demands for truth. Fear and Loathing, then, is Truman Capote's old "nonfiction novel" carried one step further, and if you need a name for it, Dr. Duke's is as good as anyone else's: Gonzo journalism.
Well, it's insanely funny and freaky stuff, this bad craziness. But here's the freakiest thing of all: Hunter Thompson and his fictional persona escape unscathed from this manic adventure. Thompson has gazed over that psychic precipice that, in our heart of hearts, strikes real fear and loathing and—most wonderous—he has come back with all his faculties apparently intact to tell the tale. It's sort of like getting the cosmic Second Chance.
Even stranger, Thompson remains an innocent. Just as Huck Finn drifted down the Mississippi on his raft in search of himself and America, so Hunter Thompson hurtles across desert highways and Las Vegas searching for the same thing. And for all the heinous drugs, the alcohol, the outrageous and downright illegal behavior, Thompson only emerges as a hip Huck. You may even find yourself, against your better judgment, calling out to him as he is continually swept into the swirling water, yelling out to him, in Nigger Jim fashion, Come back to the raft, Hunter honey.
Michael Putney, "A Freaky Huck Finn Assaults the Fleshpots," in The National Observer (© Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 1972; all rights reserved), August 5, 1972, p. 23.
Hunter Thompson, who effectively brought us Hell's Angels, tries terribly hard in [Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas] to notarize his reputation as a major cultural outlaw. But this is more hype than book. It needs some humanity and a better understanding of what time it is.
The book is in the zonked, road-writing tradition of Jack Kerouac, but it lacks Kerouac's bleeding feelings. Despite some hip ironies and several funny episodes, Thompson's world is loveless…. Failing or unable to get beneath what he sees, Thompson is yet another carrier of journalism's current typhus: he transmits surface description as analysis. When you can't perceive, describe. (pp. 31-2)
"'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 167, No. 14, October 14, 1972, pp. 31-2.
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[In] December 1971, as national correspondent for Rolling Stone. Thompson hit the presidential campaign trail, and his stream of monthly Gonzo journalism reports became one of the brighter features of that otherwise sorry year. Now rushed into book form with some additional material …, they seem even better than the first time round—the gaps, delays, and general fooling around have melted away with the heat of events. It simply doesn't matter as much now that he doesn't discuss McGovern's welfare proposals at any length or that the elaborate parliamentary maneuverings of the Democratic convention are no clearer here than they were elsewhere. What remains, instead, is very much what Thompson says he intended: "a kind of high-speed cinematic reel-record of what the campaign was like at the time, not what the whole thing boiled down to or how it fits into history."
It should be noted at the outset that Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 is open to attack from just about any traditional standard of political journalism: it is sometimes self-indulgent, wildly speculative, overwhelmingly partisan (pro-McGovern), and even short on information (most of the pieces were written on the assumption that the reader had already heard the major details). It should also be noted that none of this matters very much. Hunter Thompson is an original; there is no one quite like him, and we turn to his work not for "objective" reporting … but to watch an interesting sensibility engaged in high drama. Particularly in a case like the presidential campaign, where television has taken over standard reporting (and hardly anyone expects to hear the "real story" of backroom dealings anyway), his eccentricity works for him—he seems a rare individual voice in a world of homogenized telecasts. His raving excess is what we read him for, and, as with all good writers, his style—a wild mishmash of put-on, fantasy, and cultivated lunacy—seems an extension of personality. He is the kind of writer who talks to you right on the page. When this kind of high-voltage energy is frustrated by its subject (as was often the case on the campaign trail), it simply creates its own excitement. (p. 76)
Thompson is up to a good deal more than sideswipes and verbal contempt. He is intrigued by the mechanics of campaigning, "the drifts and strange quirks of the game," the showmanship and gambling for high stakes…. The campaign, in this book, emerges with a dynamic of its own, virtually divorced from the rest of life. He shows us the endless succession of motels and bolted meals, the sheer adrenalin rush of an election night. He is good at describing the atmosphere of the warring camps and gauges their effectiveness like a rock promoter…. He was one of the few reporters to come down hard on Tom Eagleton for his part in the V.P. mess, and his description of the Vietnam Veterans' march on the Republican convention is the best I have read…. And he is no slouch at ferreting out some good dirt: there is a hush-hush story of last-minute big money from Las Vegas to bolster Humphrey's California campaign, with McGovern people, tipped off by one of their spies, standing guard at the airport to prevent the connection.
Perhaps Thompson is able to write so well about politics because he has such enthusiasm for it, an almost visceral feel for the boys in the back room (a favorite expression is "when the deal went down"), and certainly a politician's gift for language. Fear and Loathing is the kind of book that will probably cause the usual song and dance about the New Journalism, but even that label would sit uncomfortably on so individual a talent. This is a writer: he can make the page come alive, and he sees things for himself…. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 can be irritating, muddled, and even wearing, but it is the best political reporting in some time—it manages to give politics, after years of televised lobotomy, some flesh. (p. 80)
Joseph Kanon, "Madness and Filigree," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 1, No. 4, April 21, 1973, pp. 76, 80.
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It's taken me a month to get through [Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas], and Thompson's slickly unpleasant sentences still stick in the gullet. Does the road of subjective reporting, of fact-into-fiction, necessarily lead to the New Journalism, to that Death Gulch presided over by the grinning skulls of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson? In its present phase, the New Journalism is an instrument of vulgar imaginative totalitarianism, and it commands the kind of attention one might give to the psychology of the mass rally or the implications of military uniform. Like these, the style itself endows its wearers with real power…. (p. 97)
[Thompson] has it every way round: he writes fiction without honour, fact without responsibility. I don't believe in those notes on cocktail napkins, any more than I believe in the Raymond Chandler toughery of his conversations with the Samoan acidhead he calls 'my attorney'. But then I don't positively disbelieve them, either. Thompson is a professionally unreliable witness; you feel you are listening to an impossible skein of truth mixed up with falsehood, and he implores you to quit bothering about which is which.
This casual monkeying-about with the fabric of the real world is inherently trivializing…. Thompson both teaches and practises an insidious contempt for preference, choice, value; by blurring the edges of reality he makes intelligence worthless and vision an act of petty fraud.
Of course, this is the case with every piece of bad writing; it doesn't necessarily mean that it is dangerous writing. If we are to understand the real power of such techniques, their ability to bleed dry the vision and intelligence of a culture, we must first be quite clear about which laws they are breaking, and which loopholes enable them to cheat so persistently and so plausibly. It is not that Wolfe and Thompson make bedraggled fictions out of fact, not that in their work the temporary is given such an excessively elevated status. Rather it is that they trick us into an unearned insouciance before a paradox that ought to make us blanch every time we encounter it. (pp. 99-100)
Not only is the world they report a confection of the real; so are the authors themselves creatures of invention. Las Vegas and the Kesey Pranksters happen inside their heads; but where do their heads happen in? In an idiom. Wolfe and Thompson are entirely encased within a language which they speak but for whose vocabulary and syntax they have chosen to abnegate responsibility. They live in freak-talk, a jargon whose prime purpose is to turn the world into an innocuous subjective fiction—not the fiction of the novel but the fiction of psychotic delusion. In Thompson's writing, people are fuckers, pigs, creeps; they talk bullshit; they are laying something on, flipping over, heavily into something; these 'monsters', when they have to threaten some functionary to keep quiet, promise to 'rip his lungs out' if he talks; hungry, they develop 'a powerful lust for red salmon'. It is a language of continuous hyperbole in which everyone is in extremis all the time. In consequence, they are licensed to behave with the desperation and savagery of pioneers confronted with the choice between cannibalism and extinction. Here is Thompson, considering the plight of a dim-witted girl whom his attorney has seduced in their hotel room:
Lucy was a potentially fatal millstone on both our necks. There was absolutely no choice but to cut her adrift and hope her memory was fucked. But some acid victims—especially nervous mongoloids—have a strange kind of idiot-savant capacity for remembering odd details and nothing else. It was possible that Lucy might spend two more days in the grip of total amnesia, then snap out of it with no memory of anything but our room number at the Flamingo …
I thought about this … but the only alternative was to take her out to the desert and feed her remains to the lizards. I wasn't ready for this; it seemed a bit heavy for the thing we were trying to protect: My attorney. It came down to that. So the problem was to work out a balance, to aim Lucy in a direction that wouldn't snap her mind and provoke a disastrous backlash.
This is a style of callous overstatement which breeds its own peculiar, totalitarian form of joking. The business about feeding the girl's remains to the lizards is crucial: it's meant, I suppose, to provoke a warped giggle—actually, it reminds one that the boundary between fantasy and reality is very thin indeed. He really could do it. When Peron established his regime in Argentina, he demoted Jorge Luis Borges from the post of Librarian at the University of Buenos Aires to the job of official inspector of chicken farms. It was a similar facetious demonstration of power…. (pp. 102-03)
It is in the interests of the political dictator, and the stylistic dictator, to reduce the world to fiction, to make the unreal real, and the real an arbitrary fantasy. When the techniques of the novelist are introduced into the world of literal fact, all too often they become a means of enforcing a dreadful and insensitive subjection.
Thompson and Wolfe strike one as mouthpieces of an epoch and a culture—mythic figures in whom a whole period has been alarmingly crystallised. (pp. 103-04)
Like so many dictators, Thompson [and] Wolfe … have some of the best reasons on their side. One wants to agree wholeheartedly that the tradition of nineteenth-century materialism—the tradition of objective ascertainability, of the brute fact and the inflexible statistic—nearly, fatally, succeeded in passing the world into the hands of the Gradgrinds. An elastic theory of fictions affords us a more humane, more imaginatively plausible vision of the world we actually live in. (p. 104)
When William Carlos Williams began Paterson, he was able to talk eagerly of 'our new relativistic world' commanding a new relativistic form (in I Wanted To Write a Poem). That form, the mongrel, is now everywhere with us—in our novels, our poems, our journalism. It is eating away at the librarians' distiction between 'fiction' and 'non-fiction'. It is uniquely dangerous. Dull empiricism produced the more boring passages in Arnold Bennett and Theodore Dreiser, a clumping writing that never threatened to have power. The new relativism can mother real monsters: books which betray the world and populate it with creeps and fuckers. It generates a laughter which destroys, and a praise which cheapens. Yet, somehow, we have to learn to write in mongrel with some truth, a modicum of generosity. There are sadly few examples to follow, and it is important that Hunter Thompson's nasty book should not be mistaken for one of them. (pp. 104-05)
Jonathan Raban, "The New Mongrel," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1973), Vol. 13, No. 2, June-July, 1973, pp. 96-105.
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I worry about the health of Dr. Hunter Thompson. I think I am supposed to do that. He is the most creatively crazy and vulnerable of the New Journalists, seemingly, and scattered throughout his dispatches are alarming reports on his health. Nor are his sicknesses imaginary. In this, his latest book, he gives the opinion of a physician: "He'd never seen anybody with as bad a case of anxiety as I had. He said I was right on the verge of a complete mental, physical, and emotional collapse."
Why would he tell us this? What could this be but a cry for help? And what can we do to help him? It isn't as though he doesn't try to help himself. He isn't like George Orwell, for instance, who is said to have been fairly listless in fighting disease. Thompson, if he is to be believed, has sampled the entire rainbow of legal and illegal drugs in heroic efforts to feel better than he does. (pp. 231-32)
Again: what can we do to help him? I do not know him, except from his books, which are brilliant and honorable and valuable. The evidence in those argues that reality is killing him, because it is so ugly and cheap. He imagines in [Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72] that reality, and hence his health, might be improved if nobler men held office in this country and addressed themselves truthfully to the problems of our time. (p. 232)
There is plenty of news in this newest Fear and Loathing book. Thompson suggests, for instance, that the person who created the poisonous statement, "I stand behind Tom Eagleton 1,000 percent," was not McGovern. It may have been Eagleton who did that, telling reporters what McGovern supposedly said. And Thompson detests Eagleton as much as he adores [football player] Duane Thomas. He calls the Senator "an opportunistic liar," "a hack," and "another one of those cheap hustlers," among other things.
Insults of that sort, isolated in a review, convey the idea of journalism at least as contemptible as the man attacked. But in the context of such a long and passionate book, such lapses seem almost beautiful. Curiously, they are so frenzied, so grotesque, that they can do no harm to Eagleton. I am extremely grateful for the New Journalism, as many responsible people are not. And what I think about it now is that it is the literary equivalent of Cubism: All rules are broken; we are shown pictures such as no mature, well-trained artist ever painted before, and in the crazy new pictures we somehow see luminous new aspects of beloved old truths….
[The] New Journalists are Populists screaming in pain.
They believe that it is easy and natural for Americans to be brotherly and just. That illusion, if it is an illusion, is the standard for well-being in the New Journalists' minds. Any deviation from that standard is perceived as a wound or a sickness. So the present atmosphere in America seems to them to be like the famous torture described by Orwell of tying the victim's hands and enclosing his head in a cage. And then a hungry rat is put into the cage. (pp. 233-34)
As for those who wish to know more about Thompson and his ideals, his frazzled nervous system, his self-destructiveness, and all that—he is unabridgeable. He is that rare sort of American author who must be read. He makes exciting, moving collages of carefully selected junk. They must be experienced. They can't be paraphrased. (p. 235)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., "A Political Disease" (originally published in Harper's, Vol. 247, No. 1478, July, 1973), in his Wampeters Foma & Granfalloons (copyright © 1974 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; reprinted by permission of Delacorte Press, 1974, pp. 231-35.
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[If] you accept what Thompson is doing, [Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72] works. That is, this heavily personalized writing-on-the-run, riddled here and there by the clear eye of hindsight, does convey an honest picture of a political writer picking his way through all the hoopla, propaganda, tedium, and exhaustion of a campaign.
For the straight political writer, survival is sought both physically and professionally throughout an election year; keeping the body functioning and the soul unsold. For the advocacy journalist such as Thompson, whose soul straightforwardly was on the barrelhead for George McGovern from the start, the odyssey is much less detached, but for that very reason more colorful and entertaining. A lot of it seems repetitious and irrelevant after a while, and more Hunter Thompson than you want at a stretch. But when was the last time you read in the establishment press that Edmund Muskie in Wisconsin "talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year's crop"?… This is the stuff with which boredom is chased on cold, boozy nights on the press bus, but seldom passed on to readers of The New York Times. The so-called objective reporter has to live with and master his schizophrenia; the advocator can wing it, and Thompson on the campaign trail, as anywhere else, seldom hits the ground.
Yet for a free-swinging bomb-thrower, the author projects a nose-pressed-against-the-candy-counter quality in this book. For all his irreverence, he makes you feel he got a big bang out of Hunter Thompson, the weirdo in the sneakers and sport shirt, actually talking to, rubbing elbows with, George McGovern and his top advisers.
Regrettably, there is not much here to suggest there also was a candidate named Richard Nixon in the race. Thompson predictably had trouble doing business with the White House gray-flannel set and was denied a press pass. That obviously limited what he could do….
Toward the end of the book, when Thompson takes a moment to reflect, there is the kind of insight that suggests his book might have been more than a romp had he come down for air and written it all after the election. He has some sound observations about the importance of perception vis-à-vis reality in politics, a difference that is not always grasped by those who make guerrilla raids into political reporting…. A post-election taped interview with McGovern on why the debacle occurred also is revealing, not only of McGovern as political analyst in sober reflection, but of Thompson too. (p. 45)
Jules Witcover, "Gallop with McGovern," in The Progressive (reprinted by permission from The Progressive, 408 West Gorham Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53703; copyright 1973 by The Progressive, Inc.), Vol. 37, No. 7, July, 1973, pp. 44-5.
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These days The Making of the President 1972 is of course damned, because Theodore White comes too close to accepting President Nixon's view of himself…. Hunter Thompson …, with his [Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail '72] has aroused even more partisan comment: if you hate President Nixon and the American establishment generally, Thompson is good; if not, he's unbelievably bad. (p. 7)
It is true that [Thompson] claims to "record the reality of an incredibly volatile presidential campaign while it was happening" …, but his reality is openly—one might say deliberately—biased. "Combining aggressive ignorance with a natural instinct to mock the conventional wisdom," he would give us a "high-speed cinematic reel-record of what the campaign was like at the time, not what the whole thing boiled down to or how it fits into history."…
White's effort, in contrast, is precisely to show how the whole thing fits into history, and he works hard to show himself as freed of the subjective distortions of the moment. (pp. 7-8)
The thesis of Loathing is that Hunter Thompson is interesting—or perhaps, to give him the benefit of the doubt, that McGovern could have won if he had followed Thompson's natural, sincere, unfailing populist instincts.
There are many other differences that would seem to rule out apt comparison. White's subject is how and why Nixon won. Thompson's is how McGovern won and then lost. White's implied audience is the general literate public, or those in it who seek to understand the political process. Thompson's is … the system-loathers who scorn established politics. Their styles differ even more than the differences in audience would seem to dictate. Perhaps this is because each author addresses the least literate and most credulous member of his chosen kind….
The prevailing style in Loathing is tough-guy gush. Thompson boasts of "saying anything that came into my head," with the "shits" and "fucks," the libelous epithets, the hot-rodding, the drinking, the speed, the smack, all in a rush to tell us that this "new" journalist is—despite his balding pate—still the hottest thing coming down the pike. The style derives what liveliness it has mainly from a slashing contempt for every institution and almost every person—except of course those few who have kept themselves pure. It is a style that treats all politics as wicked, that honors only what is personal, anti-institutional, free, and spontaneous….
At his best, he can cover a lot of ground fast, and he can be both vivid and very funny. But spontaneity is perhaps the hardest of all stylistic effects to maintain. At his worst, Thompson reads like a bad parody of himself, the clichés worn out by the effort to look brand new.
White's style, in contrast, is mandarin, a deliberately solemn intoning that implies heroic victories and defeats. (p. 8)
[Both] authors offer, finally, a journalism that aspires to the condition of history. They both claim to give us the 1972 election as it happened, and they thus both ask to be judged by whatever standards we have for truth in such matters.
I'm not quite sure why both authors fail so badly. Each seems to say to us that he gave all he had….
My low grades to both authors are based not on the five W's (where White by comparison gets all A's) nor even on the feeling-test appealed to by the "new journalism" (White, F; Thompson, B−) but on a small number of how questions that we ought to be able to put to any serious journalist.
1. How clear is his account, especially his treatment of causes? Making, B+; Loathing, F.
The cinema verité techniques of Thompson claim to give the feelings hot off the psyche and the meanings hot off the tapes. But direct transcriptions, whether of daydreams or conversations, do not yield meanings until a mind works them over and generates relationships. White is far superior on how it happened because he has been willing and able to reflect and revise….
The truth is that Thompson is so hostile to politicians that he just cannot bother to understand them. His proud ignorance runs much deeper than he suspects, leaving him and us in a mindless, desperate present in which everything happens for the first time. (Should I be ashamed to mention other less important kinds of ignorance? Someone should tell him that "neo-" does not mean "pseudo-" and that candidates in a close race do not run "neck in neck.") His operating in an intellectual vacuum is a pity, because he does have a great nose for foul smells, and he seems to have had an instinct for how the voters were likely to go. But he hasn't a clue about why the contemptible and ridiculous shenanigans he reports could produce the results they do. Having invented a cast of characters who are almost all fools or knaves, with only one or two failed-heroes, he can write nothing but melodrama, not history, and what he writes is not even clear as drama. (p. 9)
2. How does he know what he says?—another way of asking whether he gives me grounds for believing him. Making, A−; Loathing, F.
The only reason Thompson gives us to believe what he says is what we professors of rhetoric call his ethos; he works very hard to establish his character as the main proof of what he has to say. But shit, man, his ethos ain't no fuckin' good. He again and again shows that he shares the conviction of more than a few traditional journalists that to be entertaining is more important than to tell what happened. The "new journalism" is thus, in his hands, a form of fiction: "Fear and Loathing, or how Sir Gawain observed the White Knight's armor slowly tarnish before his pure yet troubled gaze." I will believe nothing Thompson tells me, unless I have corroboration.
Since he tells me of many times when he has gleefully lied and watched his auditors squirm under his deceptions, I must stand back a bit and doubt even his deepest claim of all: to tell his feelings as he felt them….
No doubt a great deal of what he reports occurred, but his journalistic art, with all its boasting about honesty, is incapable of convincing us about it. (p. 10)
Making, in contrast, gives me good reasons to believe. Though it contains even more political speculation than Loathing, some of it disguised as straight reporting, White seldom fails to convince me that he has really labored in search of facts….
3. Does he provide a plausible or persuasive answer to the question, "How did it happen that Richard Nixon was elected in 1972?" Making, B−; Loathing, F.
Here we arrive at the most shocking failure of Thompson….
Thompson rightly chooses the inverted and more dramatic form of the question: "How did it happen that McGovern won the nomination and then lost the election?" But his answers are whimsical and his drama perfunctory or irrelevant; we learn more, for example, about how Thompson accidentally (and hilariously) disrupted Muskie's train in Florida than we do about either Nixon's or McGovern's policies or actions.
The omission, like others in Loathing, would scarcely be worth mentioning if Thompson simply offered us a collection of his personal essays without pretending to take on the whole journalistic establishment. But his steady polemic against "classic journalism" demands that we compare, and when we compare we find that even in this matter of "how it happened," where his lively narrative gift ought to have come into its own, he lets us down miserably.
4. Does he provide a plausible answer to the question, "How was it on the campaign trail in 1972?" Making, C; Loathing, B−.
Since this is really Thompson's main question, and only a secondary question for White, it is surprising that Loathing, with all the resources and freedoms of the "new journalism," does so poorly. Still, he wins here, largely because White lets himself fall so often into the false epic. You would never guess, reading White, that anything funny happened to any candidate or reporter. Thompson is much better at catching the ridiculous side…. (p. 11)
Thompson has a good eye and ear for the pomposities that White accepts uncritically. In fact his entire capital as a journalist can almost be reduced to his boast that he alone of national journalists adopted a "merciless, ball-busting approach." When you set out to bust balls you give up more than Thompson realizes, but you do gain—not only in entertainment value, because you can show the absurdities clearly, but also in showing how it really was.
I suspect that Thompson would appeal to this kind of success as an answer to my other complaints. After all, if the campaign was as absurd as his narrative shows, what could be a better embodiment of it than a self-contradictory, self-indulgent and confusing book?… But this claim, called the "fallacy of imitative form" by some literary critics, is even less plausible when applied to journalism than it is when applied to novels, plays, or poems…. What a reporter owes us is not a compounding of confusions, of which we always have more than enough, but a serious effort, however limited, to discern patterns. Thompson is able enough to have helped us understand the campaign; even these hurried dispatches often show promise, hinting at a book about it.
But instead of laboring to free that book, Thompson has remained satisfied with his original goals, which, at least a good deal of the time, did not go beyond entertainment. You'd think—since he is a bright youngish man—that he would make it. But when it was decided, somewhere back there, that a reporter talking about himself can be more entertaining than a reporter talking about events, somebody ought to have made it clear that it all depends on how interesting the reporter is. Far too much of Loathing—and it's a long book, an incredible 25,000 words longer than Making—consists of dodgy waffling….
It is simply baffling to me that the trivial (though often amusing) results should be hailed by other journalists as "the country's greatest political reporting," as "the best stuff on the campaign I've read anywhere," and as "the best book about the campaign" (the last from Garry Wills in The New York Review of Books).
Well, maybe it's not really intended as very high praise. Maybe American journalism can escape the dullness and pomposity and solemnity of White only by seeking pop frenzies. I'm not entirely sorry that we have Thompson's report on how he felt. But let's see it for what it is: an inflated footnote on how he used the campaign to achieve a "very special kind of High," an Entertainment for those who want to see politics as a silly game that could be dispensed with if only people-who-feel-right would get together. Cleverness, energy and brashness cannot, finally, make up for ignorance and lack of critical training. (p. 12)
Wayne C. Booth, "Loathing and Ignorance on the Campaign Trail: 1972," in Columbia Journalism Review (© 1973 Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University; reprinted by permission), Vol. XII, No. 4, November-December, 1973, pp. 7-12.∗
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The change in journalism in the sixties showed itself more spectacularly on the fringes than at the center of established institutions. The so-called New Journalism, or "para-journalism," as its critics labeled it, developed parallel to the chief organs of information, influencing them only subtly and gradually, in tandem with the influence of the age….
This work included a broad spectrum of underground writing—political, countercultural, feminist, pornographic, and so on—that dealt with cultural developments ignored, distorted, or merely exploited by the established media. (p. 132)
What these different strands of writing shared was the range of things traditional journalism left out: atmosphere, personal feeling, interpretation, advocacy and opinion, novelistic characterization and description, touches of obscenity, concern with fashion and cultural change, and political savvy. (Not all these features are found in any one writer.) Sometimes these writers developed a new voice simply by including the forbidden, not only the forbidden subject but more often the device or approach forbidden by the older journalistic code. Thus Hunter Thompson learned to approximate the effect of mind-blasting drugs in his prose style, especially in his book on Las Vegas. More successfully in 1972 he affronted the taboos of political writing, and recorded the nuts and bolts of a presidential campaign with all the contempt and incredulity that other reporters must feel but censor out. The result was the kind of straightforward, uninhibited intelligence that showed up the timidities and clichés that dominated the field. But in high gear Thompson paraded one of the few original prose styles of recent years, a style dependent almost deliriously on insult, vituperation, and stream-of-invective to a degree unparalleled since Céline. (pp. 132-33)
Morris Dickstein, "The Working Press, the Literary Culture, and the New Journalism," in his Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (copyright © 1977 by Morris Dickstein), Basic Books, Inc., 1977, pp. 128-53.∗
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By conceiving his journalism as a form of fiction, Thompson has been able to shape actual events into meaningful works of literary art. (p. 16)
New journalists, such as Thompson, and fabulators, such as [Kurt] Vonnegut, make opposing epistemological contracts with the reader for similar ends. While the one promises fact and the other fantasy, both seek a greater freedom for their fictive imaginations. Because they both assume that artifice is an essential element in all knowledge and communication, they even draw on similar techniques. The results are in formal terms so close that a work like On the Campaign Trail, while certainly journalistic in its subject matter, is fabulist in its methods and purpose. (pp. 16-17)
In discussing On the Campaign Trail, we must constantly make a crucial distinction between its narrator-protagonist and the author of the work. While the perception that the narrator and implied author of a work of fiction are two separate personae is a standard tenet of literary criticism, that distinction seems more difficult for readers confronting a work claiming to be journalism, particularly when the work's narrator-protagonist bears the author's name and even, in accompanying photographs, his visage. Just as [Norman] Mailer transforms himself in a factual account into fictive "versions" of himself (characters called "Mailer," "the reporter," "Aquarius") through selective emphasis of the complex traits of his actual personality, Thompson has extended the principle to create a self-caricature. Using a comic, mock-psychotic persona as narrator-protagonist, Thompson has freed his fictive imagination to shape his journalistic works into inventive allegories—parodistic dramatizations of an individual mind experiencing, ordering, and interpreting national events. By clearly setting the account in the mind of his self-caricature, Thompson retains his journalistic contract while acquiring an extraordinary freedom to shape and flatten public facts into private meaning. In On the Campaign Trail and a number of other works Thompson calls this character "Dr. Hunter S. Thompson."
The creation and use of this persona gives On the Campaign Trail the unique epistemological and ontological status, for a work of journalism, of being the comic, hyperbolic construct of a disordered consciousness. The clear status of the work as a parodistic version of the events which make up its subject matter enables Thompson to distort the surfaces of conventional journalistic accounts into symbols of fictive truth. On the Campaign Trail is thus journalism as experimental literature, a reporting of facts that is really concerned with providing a liberating experience of them. It provides the reader with an opportunity to explore the 1972 Presidential campaign through an individual consciousness which recreates the underlying anxieties it produced while also interpreting and controlling them through an aggressively inventive use of language. Thus the value and strength of the book lie not in the depth of its social insight or acuteness of its character analysis but—as with any work of fabulist shape and purpose—in its creation of a richly pleasurable and meaningful form. Thompson uses fabulist methods to penetrate the homogenized fiction within which the mass media shapes our national reality. Replacing commentary with rhetoric, stereotype with archetype, and formula with pattern, he frankly exploits the artifice of knowledge and communication to shape the facts of the campaign into a unique form and, therefore, a unique truth. (pp. 17-18)
[On the Campaign Trail] is narrated from a perspective both temporally and physically close to its subject. Despite the supposed spontaneity of its composition … and the obvious problems of patterning a book dependent on events whose outcomes are unknown when the chapters were originally published, the work does have an overall form. Like Tristram Shandy, it is the highly contrived construct of an implied author who communicates experience as a perceived chaos—tenuously controlled by a personal assertion of meaning by an individual consciousness. The overall picaresque structure, subsuming a mixture of reporting, meditation, and digression, represents a mirror image of the disordered but determined consciousness of Dr. Thompson splicing together his imaginative experience.
Early in the narrative, Dr. Thompson explicitly rejects the illusory orderings of conventional journalism…. [Instead], his reporting attempts to order a reality imaginatively by overcoming various forces which he parodies as imminent apocalypse: the chaos of actual events, the pressures of his task, and even his own psychic disorientation. He introduces his report on the Ohio primary, for instance, with a portrait of himself, forced to sit at his desk in a maelstrom of confusion and pressure…. (pp. 18-19)
Such passages in Thompson's work function as sophisticated metafiction which emphasizes that the work is a personal construct which shifts its drama from the events reported to the experience of those events by an individual consciousness. By making Dr. Thompson's writing desk the central fact of his narrative, Thompson is able to present the Presidential campaign as an unfolding experience which lacks any apparent objective order and must instead be imaginatively ordered by the perceiving consciousness. Time in Dr. Thompson's narrative is thus not historical but spatial.
An historian or realistic novelist, looking at events from a perspective above and outside, perceives a certain cause-and-effect sequence, and then constructs a patterned narrative which creates a seemingly objective order. To bolster such a construct as an empirical representation of an actual pattern of events, he endeavors to focus the reader's attention on the events of the narrative and to make him forget about the artificer who imposes that pattern. Mailer, by drawing attention to his use of such narrative conventions, has sought in The Armies of the Night and his other journalism to make the reader aware of his artificial role while nevertheless carrying it out. In this way he confirms the conventional order of the novelist and historian without falsely suggesting that he is making an objective representation. Thompson, by focusing on his narrator's temporal and physical proximity to the events, makes those events far more formidable and his own ordering powers correspondingly weaker.
The page and deadline thus become the life and death of his narrative. The deadline makes the process of composition a meaningful act in itself; the page on the writing desk becomes the problematic reality that is the product of the meeting of consciousness and world, the place where Dr. Thompson must overcome the chaos of his subject and that of his mind in order to contrive something which will fill the blankness. By having Dr. Thompson constantly draw attention to himself in the act of pressured creation—as he seemingly composes through free association, digression, and fantasy, Thompson disappoints the reader's expectations for a narrative which will mirror an objective pattern of external events; instead, the report mirrors Dr. Thompson's struggle for meaning. (pp. 19-20)
By further presenting such "reports" as the construct of a consciousness which is disordered and extreme in its perceptions, Thompson acquires the license to portray the campaign in the distancing and symbolic forms of parody. (p. 20)
[Storytelling] is made to function as reporting, a reporting that is certainly fable but not falsehood.
Thompson also uses the digressive freedom afforded by the disordered consciousness of his persona in a number of other ways, having him wander off into fantasies, for instance, which project suspicions as concrete images…. Thompson also uses the license provided by Dr. Thompson's narrating mind to convey a tone of immediacy, causing the report to seem to have been written as the events were observed. (p. 21)
Like Mailer, Thompson presents the product of his persona's engagement with actual events through undisguised verbal comparisons that link observation to perception, thus clearly displaying the ontological status of the style as a combination of fact and mind. While Mailer's narrative persona creates metaphors that are usually subtle, complexly extended, and at times so surprisingly appropriate that they seem to become part of the object's reality, Dr. Thompson appends similes that are assaultive, succinct, and so consistently bestial that they reduce the political world of supposedly complex passions and subtle strategies to his own private allegory of appetite. (p. 22)
The nervous rhythms, shifting focus, hyperbolic imagery, and extreme presentness are all established as early as the opening paragraph of the introduction to On the Campaign Trail. The parodistic control at the center of his verbal instrument is Thompson's major literary innovation…. The effect of the style is to convey the world external to the narrating consciousness as a perceived chaos. (pp. 22-3)
The result is a bestial world in which established figures of the Democratic Party are on the same page "a gang of senile leeches" and a "herd of venal pigs."… (p. 23)
Within this menagerie, only three figures are set apart…. Dr. Thompson sees [McGovern] as the best of this world…. Nixon, Dr. Thompson asserts, "represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise."…
Within the flattened, black-and-white world of Dr. Thompson's consciousness, McGovern and Nixon function as allegorical figures in a struggle for America's soul. Although Nixon is a distant spectre in On the Campaign Trail (Thompson was refused press credentials by the White House), he nevertheless serves as Dr. Thompson's chief antagonist in the quest for a good America. (pp. 23-4)
Dr. Thompson's America is a promise betrayed, a possibility of noble humanity which repeatedly reveals itself as only a sick beast. Nixon is hateful because he gives vent to that tendency, a monster whose imminent re-election by landslide will assert once and for all the bestiality of the country…. That Dr. Thompson suspects such to be our true condition is symbolized and parodied at various points through the depiction of his paranoid belief that his own body and mind are regressing into the bestial…. [Finally] he breaks down after the election debacle. Parodying the methods of eighteenth-century fiction, Thompson inserts an "Editor's Note" which informs us that the November chapter has had to be completed through a taped interview. (pp. 24-5)
Thompson portrays disease as not only an interior spiritual condition but also as a physical corruption of the original promise of America's landscape. Throughout On the Campaign Trail Dr. Thompson perceives that contemporary American society has placed in doubt even the simple rising of the sun…. Thompson uses his persona's perceptions of both the internal corruption of his body and the external corruption of the nation's landscape to mirror his own perception of the spiritual perversion of the nation itself.
The concern with the history and future of America is the larger theme of On the Campaign Trail, much more its true concern than the immediate subject of the Presidential campaign. Structurally, the parodistic quest is centered around a symbolic city. The first chapter finds Thompson's persona moving east from his pastoral home in Woody Creek, Colorado, to Washington, D.C., reversing the historical-mythical-literary direction in order to discover the contemporary reality of a nation that has always moved west in search of a dream. Most of the opening chapter is devoted to Dr. Thompson's discovery of the prevailing state of alienation in the nation…. In the opening scenes we are … introduced to the first signs of Dr. Thompson's fear of personal corruption which eventually develops into a schizophrenic perception of himself as a werewolf.
Despite the feeling of being in the grip of corruptive forces beyond his control or comprehension, a sense of helplessness extending to his perception that as narrator he is "drifting around in the nervous murk of some story with no apparent meaning or spine to it,"… Dr. Thompson is wonderfully aggressive and humorous, both in his actions and rhetoric, during the months in which he gradually moves from a perspective of skeptical inquiry to hope, then renewed skepticism and ambivalence, and finally desperate commitment to the McGovern campaign. During the first half of the book he plays pranks and spews abuse, countering his "fear" by giving full vent to his "loathing."… [Roguish] tactics enable the persona to survive through laughter and aggression in an environment which induces extreme psychic pressure. He, therefore, is most playfully virulent when contemplating his worst fears. (pp. 25-7)
As it becomes clear that America will turn overwhelmingly in the election toward an affirmation of the bestial side of its nature, Thompson increasingly portrays his persona as unable to write coherent reports and prone to hallucinatory nightmare…. The course of the campaign's actual events has fulfilled Dr. Thompson's paranoid fears, and their realization has temporarily disintegrated his personality. Having lost the ability to confer even a personal order on the events, he must give up his role as narrator to become the subject of an editor's questions.
Dr. Thompson eventually recovers so that he is able to write a subdued December chapter and an Epitaph…. In his disordered state, Dr. Thompson seems to feel that he has stumbled on some important message in these cliches: "I read it several times before I grasped the full meaning. Then, when it came to me, I called Mankiewicz immediately. 'Keep your own counsel,' he said. 'Don't draw any conclusions from anything you see or hear'."… [The Epitaph] presents the lesson Dr. Thompson has learned in his experience on the campaign trail: the world is too permeated by false appearance, conspiracy, and delusion for one to trust the evidence of his senses. Since he can find no epistemological certainty in his contact with the macrocosm, Dr. Thompson retreats completely into the solipsistic solace of the microcosm of his alienated consciousness…. Combining elements of the Marx Brothers and Philip Marlowe to echo the ending of [Ernest Hemingway's] A Farewell to Arms, Thompson brings the parodistic allegory to an end.
But the despair of the conclusion is not the conclusion itself, for the comic and inventive form counters the withdrawal, asserts the power of fable-making against the impotence of reporting…. [Dr. Thompson] asserts that his fable-making is a necessary antidote to the prepackaged language, forms, and concepts with which the corporate media produce illusory images and abstractions. He has had to replace the detective-role of the conventional reporter—based on the assumption of a rational, cause-and-effect world—with the artist-role of the new journalist—based on a realization that the evidence of the macrocosm has already been artificially distorted and invented. Through his persona, Thompson presents, however ironically, the necessity of private fable against corporate fiction. (pp. 27-9)
John Hellmann, "Corporate Fiction, Private Fable, and Hunter S. Thompson's 'Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1979), Vol. XXI, No. 1, 1979, pp. 16-29.
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The "60's," which ran from 1965 to 1974, brought forth a fresh, raw journalism appropriate to the general abandon…. Hunter Thompson is indisputably a hugely important sociological phenomenon. The age's distinctive feature was iconoclasm—anyone in a position of authority was presumptively engaged in nefarious enterprise…. So it was iconoclasm and a personal hedonism expressed in sex, drugs—and rhetoric. (p. 1)
[What] emerges with a most awful vividness from ["The Great Shark Hunt"], presented as a chrestomathy by the most highly accredited bard of the period, is a very nearly unrelieved distemper, and this, along with the tintinnabulary drugs, is so markedly the Sign of Thompson that to fail to give it due emphasis would be to fail to remark Jimmy Durante's nose.
Alas, it is lacking in flavor. Or at least such is the impression of any reader familiar, say, with the vituperative art of Westbrook Pegler, or John Greenway or Noel Parmentel. The instruments are blunt. One comes across a casual reference to the Governor of Kentucky: "a swinish neo-Nazi hack named Louis Nunn." (pp. 1, 14)
So that by the time he gets to Richard M. Nixon, one has the feeling Dr. Thompson is merely using a cookie-cutter, though there is now a palpable sense of strain, viz.: "For years I've regarded [Nixon's] very existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. I couldn't imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn't quite reach the lever on the voting machine."…
Now—understand—we are asked by some admirer of Hunter Thompson ("Hunter Thompson is this country's greatest political reporter"—San Francisco Chronicle) to believe that we are reading the work of a hero of an entire generation of American students. Concerning that claim, a little skepticism is surely in order. An exhibitionist can be spectacular, and even lionized, in the Animal Houses. But Hunter Thompson elicits the same kind of admiration one would feel for a streaker at Queen Victoria's funeral. There is a quite awful witlessness in most of his writings, forced marches over so very many hundreds of leagues, with only episodic literary and spiritual refreshment. Once in a while he will be lyrically expressive, drawing all the mead from a protracted metaphor….
One must understand that Dr. Hunter Thompson takes himself very seriously. (p. 14)
Dr. (of chemotherapy, we are perhaps facetiously advised) Thompson has a clearly pronounced sense of mission. "I went to the Democratic Convention [Chicago, 1968] as a journalist, and returned a raving beast…. For me, that week in Chicago was far worse than the worst bad acid trip I'd ever heard rumors about. It permanently altered my brain chemistry, and my first new idea—when I finally calmed down—was an absolute conviction there was no possibility for any personal truce, for me."
O.K. But what is the meaning of that refusal of the "quintessential outlaw's" (Copyright, jacket copy, Summit Books) commitment not to cease hostilities? Its meaning isn't clear, any more than nihilism is clear: but the paraphernalia of the truceless war are vividly enumerated. (pp. 14-15)
Unhappily, the most persuasive line in this massive book on politics, drugs, Las Vegas, Hemingway, Cozumel, horse racing, professional football is Hunter Thompson's advising the reader that something "permanently" altered his "brain chemistry." Manifestly he is bereft of reason; of the power to distinguish; of the power, even, to exhilarate. For those who want that kind of thing, [Hubert Selby, Jr.'s] "Last Exit to Brooklyn" is by comparison a brilliant and poetic alternative….
In this book, Hunter Thompson lowers the flag of The 60's According to Rolling Stone. It is at half-mast, but one doubts the wake will be crowded, except for the pushers. (p. 15)
William F. Buckley, Jr., "Blunt Instruments," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 5, 1979, pp. 1, 14-15.
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Apocalypse has come and gone, and what will the psychedelic writers do now—Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson? Did they flame out, like their decade? Their long roller-coaster sentences, whose art was to seem half out of control, caught the veerings of the '60s. It was a breathless time, no one could keep up—take notes as you run, and stop every now and then to exclaim something like, "Just so!"
Mailer got there first…. Thompson came last and most extravagant, using Hawkeye Pierce's technique of homeopathic madness to outlast the time by outcrazying it. Did they capture the time so well that they were captured by it, and have nowhere to go? That may not be true of the other two; but things look bleak at the moment for "Doctor" Thompson….
Hunter Thompson, who created so many alternate personae in his own work, survives now mainly as the product of another wild imagination, Garry Trudeau's. He may be remembered only in the annotated Doonesbury books of the future.
But probably not. Reading this pretentious collection of Thompson's journalism [The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time] …, I was reminded that all three of the psychedelic writers were less of their time than they seemed at the time. All three were trying to recreate the '60s as a second '20s…. The lost generation had to be revived to undergo another crackup, with drugs instead of booze setting the pace, with harried but graceful men enacting parables of courage—to be celebrated, now, with verbal extravagance instead of Hemingway's economy. (p. 1)
[Thompson's] fantasies draw more directly on '60s writers like Terry Southern than the others do—even Mailer in Why Are We in Vietnam? Thompson has no grand theories on the scale of Mailer's manicheism or Wolfe's anti-chic chic. He is not here to explain but to feel, and the few times he gets serious—e.g., in offering campaign advice to George McGovern—he becomes silly in a way that his nightmare-journalism never is. Gonzo is not Godzilla. In a way, Thompson's art is purer than the other two's (with the exception of Wolfe's pure dream-coverage of Ken Kesey). Thompson never preaches. But that means he never instructs. He amuses; he frightens; he becomes a dandy at flirting with doom. But he is a good way of revisiting Nick Adams country; and even if he never does anything else, his achievement is substantial. (p. 5)
Garry Wills, "Hunter Thompson: Rollercoasting through the '60s and '70s," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), August 19, 1979, pp. 1, 5.
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The Great Shark Hunt, a Hunter Thompson reader, offers the bulk and flavor of his work in the mainstream and on the margins of popular journalism….
[By] pulling so much of his topical work into a single pile, The Great Shark Hunt … creates a surprising impression. If you drop all these pages of HST at only a few sittings, you're likely to experience a striking acid insight—in spite of the engagingly manic ravings of his Rolling Stone persona, Thompson is actually a conventional writer, provided he's judged by the full body of his work.
For one thing, he's versed in the American classics, and his writing shows it. For the title piece in this reader, and for his avowed taste for rambling metaphysically during the lobster shift, he owes a debt to Moby Dick. For his chosen role as the hip provocateur, the man who changes identities from moment to moment and jumps into the center of his tale even as he writes it, he owes a similar debt to The Confidence Man. Evidently, he has also studied [Mark] Twain's hyperbole and [H. L.] Mencken's invective.
True to his generation (he's in his early forties), he's a student of Hemingway and Fitzgerald…. Even as his own celebrity flows in the pop groove cut for Hemingway, Thompson takes Fitzgerald's side in the old Scott versus Papa debate, as it surfaces in two of these pieces, written with a coffeehouse flavor for the The National Observer some fifteen years ago. Even in the wilder work he did in the seventies, Thompson invokes Jay Gatsby far more often than Timothy Leary.
As a matter of fact, even though it was billed as the mindbending account of the ultimate bad trip, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas can also be read as a tribute to The Great Gatsby. The periods and settings of the books correspond—the Jazz Age and the Psychedelic Age, the newly-rich estates of Long Island and the gaming rooms of Las Vegas. Further, the books take up the same theme, what's known grandly as The American Dream or prosaically as the sense of possibility. With a jackpot to fill your pocket and a few tabs of acid to expand your mind, all things can seem possible to you, just as sharply and vainly as they did to Gatsby.
Moreover, Thompson's work displays a traditional outlook. He's an old-fashioned moralist, even if he does favor a hip idiom, and he's drawn again and again in these pages to treat some of the leading rituals in the popular culture: political campaigns, prizefights, horse races, bikers' runs, gambling binges, hypes, and more. (p. 71)
Usually, though, the rituals he finds are dead, exhausted, and simply oblige Thompson's geeks and villains to go through empty motions. This boredom, this empty space at the center of things, is the heart of darkness in Thompson's moral scheme. (pp. 71-2)
Don't get the wrong idea. This book is bubbling with Thompson's schticks: kinghell rages, foul screeds, drug marathons, paranoid inventions, and the rest. In a collection of this size, though, the stage business gets stale and crumbles away, and the character of the writer begins to emerge. Remarkable as it may seem, Hunter S. Thompson … is actually an admirable square. (p. 72)
Ralph Whitehead, Jr., "The Gonzo Morality," in Columbia Journalism Review (© 1979 Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University; reprinted by permission), Vol. XVIII, No. 3, September-October, 1979, pp. 71-2.
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As I write, Raoul Duke is standing blindfolded in front of an Iranian firing squad, haggling over the bribe he is offering. For Doonesbury's sake, I hope those atavistic waterheads grease the twisted little bugger; he hasn't been funny for months now. We would all be better off without him. Like Hunter S. Thompson's journalistic style, Uncle Duke has grown predictable….
Perhaps that is a harsher way to put it than Thompson's work deserves. Many people I respect consider Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas an American classic. Certainly parts of it are very funny in a deranged sort of way, mostly the parts that would fit into a George Carlin monologue under the aegis of "How stoned were you?"… I shall not masquerade as a grave literary moralist and deny that Thompson can make me laugh, nor that he knows more about Americans and the national condition than many of his sterner and more responsible colleagues in the press. (p. 342)
Just about the only way of taking him seriously is as an updated Western humorist, a teller of tall tales and outrageous whoppers, Rolling Stone's own Mike Fink. But that is not all of it. My own laughter at Thompson's carryingson is usually uneasy, since it proceeds from what is most self-indulgent and unattractive about my generation's response to the Vietnam era, and the more Gonzo journalism one reads, the fewer the laughs.
For one things, the man repeats himself shamelessly [in The Great Shark Hunt], in the process killing off words in the fashion of any Hollywood promo man. (pp. 342-43)
America is the world, and the world began about 1959, so far as the eldest members of our tribe can determine. All the rest is myth and legend, a continuous present of two-dimensional parables in which fact and value yield to the imperatives of adolescent self-dramatization. Thus the assassination of John F. Kennedy is Noah's flood and modern history commenced at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968 when twisted, atavistic fascist demiurges seized control of that world…. Despite the ministrations of St. George McGovern and Jimmy the Apostle (Thompson was an early adept), and despite Watergate, the forces of darkness remain in control.
I do not wish to be understood as making light of those sad events; quite the opposite. But I'll take Mike Royko on Chicago—or better, Dreiser, Wright, Bellow, Farrell or Mark Smith—every time over Chicken Little. Political melodrama of the Thompson variety proceeds from a particularly perverse sentimentality; the man predicts cataclysm when he is not even expecting rain. The real harmfulness of such bogus melodrama, as George Orwell pointed out, is that persons who take it seriously are usually converted to the opposite persuasion at the first hard knock of reality. (p. 343)
Gene Lyons, "How Stoned Were You?" in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 11, October 13, 1979, pp. 342-43, 345-46.