Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 2000 (2006 paperback reprint), 756 pages, C$21.00, ISBN 978-0-684-87316-9

This second volume of Hunter S. Thompson’s letters takes us to Thompson’s most memorable years: 1968-1976, spanning not only the eight years of the Nixon/Ford administration, but most of Thompson’s best-know work.  Gonzo journalism was born in 1970 with “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas written not too long after, eventually published in the middle of the 1972 presidential campaign that Thompson was covering for Rolling Stones and eventually ended in Fear and Loathing ’72: On the Campaign Trail.  Add to that the continuing echo of Hell’s Angels (1966), his candidacy for Aspen’s Sheriff position, Thompson’s increasing fame and the crystallization of his reputation as a hard-living journalist and you end up with a fascinating eight years.

What editor Douglas Brinkley has done with this second volume of letters is similar to the work accomplished on the first volume of Thompson letters (The Proud Highway), with a few differences.  For one thing, there are quite a bit more contextual notes to explain passing allusions, which reflects Thompson’s gradual accession to national affairs.  The other difference is that the book reprints a number of letters sent to Thompson, including a number of dark and angry missives from Oscar Acosta, the “Chicano Lawyer” often mentioned in Thompson’s seventies work that was so famously parodied in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  It’s easy to see the rough nature of their friendship, and even easier to see how it breaks down to mutual hostility.  Other notables whose letters are included are Tom Wolfe, George McGovern, Katharine Graham, Pat Buchanan, Jann Wenner, Gary Hart and Jimmy Carter.  There are also, unusually, snippets of Thompson prose that don’t seem to have been reprinted anywhere else –including fragments about his influential experience in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention, where he got caught in riots and beaten up by policemen.

Many of the notes and caveats about The Proud Highway also apply here: This is the closest we’ll ever get to a Thompson autobiography, especially as it details on a quasi-weekly basis what Thompson is working on.  (Alas, reading the book as it details numerous projects that Thompson never finished is enough to make one wonder about What Could Have Been –am I the only one who thinks “Guts Balls” could have been a splendid Palahniuk-like story?)  It’s a very, very long book, and the low density of content will make it of interest to dedicated Thompson fans.  There are minor revelations here and there, but rest assured that those have already been cherry-picked by the recent wave of posthumous Thompson biographies.  A few photos, some never seen before, are inserted between each year’s worth of letters.

A few things do evolve, though: Thompson’s worries about money never completely disappear, but Fear and Loathing in America takes place after his move to Woody Creek and the relative peace of mind that a stable home base provided to him.  At the same time, though, Thompson’s prose style finally solidifies in the aggressive gonzo style that he would keep until his death in 2005: the strong-willed but polite southern gentleman of his formative years has ceded place to an obsessive writer whose invectives become legendary.  It’s also worth nothing that, perhaps due to the increased panoply of communication devices available to Thompson as the seventies go on, the bulk of the book takes place before 1975, and the lengthy “here’s what I’ve done lately” letter updates are increasingly replaced by letters regarding specific issues.

It all neatly sets up the much-awaited third tome of the series: The Mutineer has been promised for years by the Thompson Estate, and was pushed back from October 2009 to June 2010 as I was reading this second volume of letters.  Who knows what awaits in Thompson’s correspondence between 1977 and 2005?  We’ll find out in a year or so… assuming the book isn’t pushed back even further until then.

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