Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson, Ed. Anita Thompson

<em class="BookTitle">Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson</em>, Ed. Anita Thompson

Da Capo Press, 2009, 411 pages, C$22.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-306-81651-2 sept4

Depending on your level of cynicism, there are at least two ways of looking at Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, a lengthy compendium of interviews with Hunter S. Thompson.  You can see it as an homage to an American writer whose career spanned decades, an over-sized personality whose personal excesses were as legendary as his best-known works and an infamous wit who almost unfailingly provided interviewers with great material.  But you can also see it as yet another brick in the growing cottage industry that revolves around Thompson, an industry that began in earnest a decade before Thompson’s suicide in 2005.

Since the mid-nineties, we’ve seen the publication of two volumes of his letters, re-editions of his rarer out-of-print books (in matching sets, even), a number of personal memoirs and a few more dispassionate biographies.  Given Thompson’s lifelong obsession with money, it would certainly please him to understand that he now accounts for a small sliver of the publishing industry’s revenue stream.  For fans and readers, though, it raises the question as to when we’ll reach saturation point.  As the wait drags on for The Mutineer, a third-and-last volume of his personal letters, the arrival of Ancient Gonzo Wisdom sidesteps the issue by offering fans exactly what it promises: a highly enjoyable collection of interviews.

Spanning decades between 1967 and 2005, this book follows Thompson’s career as he goes from an obscure writer solely known for a book about the Hell’s Angels, to his growing fame as the first gonzo journalist, to the elder curmudgeon whose words passed into legend.  A media biography of sorts, Ancient Gonzo Wisdom is perhaps most interesting in the look it offers at those who talk to Thompson: their questions change as Thompson’s celebrity grows, and different venues focus on different aspects of the writer’s life.  By their inclusion here, a few landmark pieces are now easily available to Thompson scholars as well: The infamous 1974 Playboy interview by Craig Vetter is reprinted (albeit edited) and those who are curious about Thompson’s lectures to college students will be glad to see a few of them transcribed here.

Some of the most interesting pieces go beyond the usual interview format to tackle specific venues or subjects.  Early on, a lengthy and detailed interview for a Boston radio station focuses almost exclusively on politics.  Twice, High Times discusses drugs with “elderly dope fiend” Thompson, first in 1977 and then again in 2003.  In-between, the Washington Journalism Review and the Paris Review discuss journalism.  Perhaps the strangest piece is self-avowed fan Phoebe Legere’s interview for Puritan adult magazine: the two seem to know each other intimately, and the interview soon takes on airs of a comedy skit in-between discussions of sexual techniques: “Phoebe screams, he brandishes the gun” [P.245]

Not all interviews are coherent, though, and (even leaving aside the further editing specific to the book) there can be a dramatic difference from venue to venue in how well they edit Thompson’s words.  Some interviews are barely understandable, while others distill Thompson’s words into quasi-epigrams: One of the best editing decisions is to close the book with a posthumous May 2005 Playboy piece which boils down a week’s worth of discussions into solid “postcard wisdom”.

More than half of the pieces presented in Ancient Gonzo Wisdom date from the last ten years of Thompson’s life, which can be explained by the wider availability of recent material but also end up presenting a view of Thompson biased toward the latter-day legend.  It’s both amusing and dispiriting to see that Thompson saw the Bush administration in a clear light well before most Americans did; on the other hand, some of the last interviews show Thompson sliding toward conspiracy theories from the JFK assassination to the “9/11 was an inside job” truthers.

If nothing else, Ancient Gonzo Wisdom presents, in a nutshell, the evolution of Thompson as seen by popular media.  The introductions to the pieces (as writers frequently have trouble reaching Thompson) are often as interesting as the interviews themselves, and the sheer force of Thompson’s personality has no trouble shining through the page.  This may not be an essential Thompson book, but it’s a good read and a decent addition to the Thompson bibliography.  But seriously, when is The Mutineer coming out?

[November 2009: There is another compilation of interviews out there: Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson, edited by Beef Torrey and Kevin Simonson for the very-serious University Press of Mississippi.  Much of the material will feel familiar to veteran Thompson readers, and even more so for readers of Ancient Gonzo Wisdom.  The emphasis here is usually placed on Thompson-the-writer or Thompson-the-Journalist, although latter pieces tend to focus on Thompson-the-Difficult-Interview-Subject: Typical post-1990 pieces tend to include a lengthy description of the interview process as prologue, sidebar and epilogue to Thompson’s words.  Unlike Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, the interviews here have not been edited and are printed as they first appeared –including the Vetter interview for Playboy, which appears in both collections.]

Gamer (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Gamer</strong> (2009)

(In theatres, September 2009) It goes without saying that I’m about twice the age of Gamer’s intended audience of XBox-addicted teens who would think that a real-life FPS with remote-controlled convicts is a cool idea.  Nonetheless, even the most enthusiastic gamers will have no trouble recognizing a lousy film when they see one.  Light on SF ideas and just as disappointing in strict action-movie terms, Gamer pushes the lightning-quick editing craze as far as it goes until it shreds to tatters.  The irony, of course, is that gaming usually takes place within a long continuous shot that allows players to build a strong mental landscape of their surroundings: Chopping up an action scene in a flurry of split-second shots is the exact opposite of that kind of aesthetics.  But this is starting to sound like old-guy complaining, so let’s focus on Gamer’s more substantial failings: the cookie-cutter plot that feels like a re-thread of so many other “real game” movies (I don’t usually bring up Death Race in conversation, but there’s an exception to everything), the wasted thematic foundations of a film using gaming as a metaphor about control, the sheer weirdness of -say- a dance number confrontation between hero and villain… Gamer is a bit of a mess, really, but it doesn’t even have what it takes to become an enjoyable mess.  Aside from Gerard Butler’s credible presence as an action hero and the pedigree of writer/directors Neveldine/Taylor, there’s little, in fact, to distinguish Gamer from so many dull straight-to-video SF thrillers.  Why don’t you fire up the console instead?

Dance of Death, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

<em class="BookTitle">Dance of Death</em>, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner Books, 2005 (2006 mass-market reprint), 560 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61709-1

This one is for the fans.

Readers completely new to the Preston/Child novels should enjoy this latest magisterial demonstration of why they reign as the most popular team in contemporary thrillers, but it’s really the fans who have read all nine of their previous collaborations that will enjoy Dance of Death to its fullest extent.  It bring together elements of nearly everything in their shared bibliography, exploits existing relationships, puts recurring characters through tough situations, upsets a few familiar truths and delivers extra payoffs for readers with long memories.

It is, after all, the second volume in the “Diogenes Trilogy”.  But unlike its predecessor Brimstone, the duel between FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his brother Diogenes is not a subplot: it takes center-stage, and Diogenes is a featured character as plan for a “perfect crime” unfolds in and around New York.  Aloysius, predictably, has survived the sombre conclusion of Brimstone, but people around him may not fare as well as Dance of Death begins and a number of his acquaintances are killed.  Could Diogenes’ plan have as an ultimate victim his own brother?  How could it not?

Those acquaintances include practically everyone in the Preston/Child universe, and so Dance of Death feels like an extended reunion with walk-in roles for nearly everyone ever featured in their previous nine novels.  Some of those appearances aren’t much more than one-scene mentions; others have a far greater role to play in the story.  Fans of The Ice Limit, in particular, will get not only a cute meta-fictional wink (as characters see a copy of Ice Limit III: Return To Cape Horn), but a pair of spellbinding chapters in which thought-to-be-dead Eli Glinn goes head-to-head with agent Pendergast.  Readers will even decode a sequel of sorts to The Ice Limit from the various clues left in plain view by Preston/Child.

Other links cleverly exploit various characters’ particular talents and skills: NYPD Laura Hayward is a dogged investigator looking into Pendergast’s role in the murders, while her boyfriend Vincent D’Agosta makes a perfect brawny companion to the cerebral FBI agent.  Even elements of the plotting seem to echo previous Preston/Child collaborations, as yet another big exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History goes spectacularly awry; it goes without saying that both curators Nora Kelly and Margo Green are involved in some way –one of them more dramatically than the other.

In sheer thrills, it’s always amazing to see Preston/Child manage to re-use old classic elements and wrap them into something new.  Jaded thriller readers won’t help but smile at the accumulation of well-worn plot devices crammed in the novel: Sane people wrongfully committed; diamond thievery (twice!); characters framed for murder; love interest held hostage… there’s even a pair of thrilling car chases to keep things rolling along.

But the real thrill of Dance of Death is in seeing a duel of masterminds.  Agent Pendergast has always been a ridiculously overpowered protagonist, and novels such as Still Life with Crows only proved how tricky it was to match him with a challenging opponent.  Now it looks as if The Diogenes Trilogy is designed to provide a fair adversary for Pendergast.

The novel ends on a note that will send fans rushing to get the third volume: Dance of Death keeps going about thirty pages longer than it could, building up a sense of anticipation that another phase of the story is starting… and that it’s interrupting itself just when it’s getting good.

As usual, it’s this combination of familiar characters, solid thrills, catchy prose and overall forward rhythm that continues to mesmerize Preston/Child readers.  Dance of Death does not transcend the contemporary thriller genre, but it fully exploits that storytelling mode and provides the entertainment that genre fiction should reliably provide.  The Diogenes trilogy concludes in The Book of the Dead, and only the strongest-willed readers won’t drop everything in order to see what happens next.

The Final Destination [Final Destination 4] (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Final Destination</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Final Destination 4</strong>] (2009)

(In theaters, September 2009) By the fourth entry in this horror franchise, we already know what we’re going to get: a nihilistic string of Rube-Golbergian mechanisms of death, with a side order of dark humour.  The Final Destination may struggle to present anything distinctive, but it certainly delivers the bare minimum of what the audience is expecting.  As a piece of carnography, it’s assembled with skill and a willingness to keep things moving at a fast clip –within the confines of slick B-grade teenage horror, that’s already not too bad.  Of course, it never comes close to escaping the confines of its own expectations: The plot is the same as the first three instalments (albeit with even less justification), the nihilism is even stronger, the gore just as excessive and even when the film seems to display an attempt at wit, it never bothers going the extra step forward.  The filmmakers will want you to believe that the 3D conception of The Final Destination somehow put it apart, but aside from the requisite impalements and things-through-your-eye (non-horror 3D movies love to throw things at your face; horror 3D movies love to throw things through your face) the film is going to be just as bland on 2D-DVD.  Film geeks will spot a number of references to the other entries in the franchise (including a 3D CGI gallery of the previous three film’s “best-of” deaths, along with a nasty little coda in the same style), but little approaching real effort: even the meta-finale, taking place in a movie theatre where they’re showing a 3D movie, seldom bothers to go beyond the superficial.  The characters are bland, some deaths feel perfunctory (readers of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts” will chuckle at one) and the lack of evolution in the series’ mythology reinforces the creative cash-in nature of this sequel.  But don’t worry: The Final Destination may be pretentiously titled, but there will be another one in a year or two… and chances are that you can already figure how it’s going to go and how it’s going to end.