Songs of the Doomed, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 1990 (2002 reprint), 355 pages, C$24.00 pb, ISBN 0-7432-4099-5

As my sequential reading of Hunter S. Thompson’s work progresses onward, I have to read about the worst years like I read about the best: After the glory years of the early seventies, Thompson’s output during the eighties became a lot more fragmented: Generation of Swine (1989) collected a hundred of his San Francisco Examiner columns, while Songs of the Doomed riffles through Thompson’s archives to present snippets of material written between 1950 and 1990.  It’s billed as a retrospective, but it feels a lot like the publication of redundant material wrapped around a few worthwhile pieces that followed The Great Shark Hunt.

Part of this impression is formed by my extensive readings about Thompson, much of it published after Songs of the Doomed.  While the publication of excerpts from The Rum Diary must have caused a sensation back in 1990, it’s more interesting today for comparative purposes given how the entire novel manuscript was revised and published in 1998.  Some of the letters included here are also available in one of the two books of letters published so far.  On the other hand, the snippets from Prince Jellyfish in Songs of the Doomed still remain today the only publicly-available chapters from Thompson’s first novel.

From time to time, it seems as if Thompson is either recycling notes, or reprinting familiar material.  It doesn’t help that we’re rarely told when excerpts are reprints or take-offs on familiar material.  “The Edge” passage from Hell’s Angels is reprinted as “Midnight on the Coast Highway”, whereas what looks like another draft of the high-water mark in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is presented as, indeed, “High-Water Mark”.  Thompson scarcely introduces his pieces either: in-between text, we get italicized anecdotes that don’t offer much to those who have gone through the rest of his (auto-)biographical material.

Still, there is some more interesting material at hand.  Thompson may have officially published very little outright fiction, but he kept having ideas for novels and stories, and some of those abortive segments are included here, including notes on The Silk Road (a crime thriller inspired by the influx of Cuban refugees in early-eighties Florida) and a promising beginning called “Fear and Loathing in Sacramento”, intriguing despite elements that approach self-parody.  The snippets of Sacramento were apparently published as part of Thompson’s final columns for the SF Examiner, and they go well with other pieces that seem just as determined to dip into pure fiction.

But the real gem of the book is one of the few gonzo articles written too late to be included in The Great Shark Hunt: “Love on the Palm Beach Express: The Pulitzer Divorce Trial” is one of the last articles that Thompson would write as a journalist, and it’s a savage look at the lifestyle of the rich and scandalous in Palm Beach, Florida.  Thomspon scholars already know that this was the article that made Thompson realize that he was too famous to keep doing journalism work: his presence disrupted the trial he was supposed to cover, although it’s ironic that we get no trace of this very gonzoesque incident in the article itself.

Even for those who start reading Songs of the Doomed with an open mind and the best of intentions, the sheer familiarity of the material makes it tough to disagree with the assessment that Thompson was a shadow of his former creative self by the eighties.  The last chunk of the book focuses on the writer’s early 1990 legal problems, but the impact of that section seems to operate on an entirely different level than Thompson intended: while he portrays himself as a downtrodden citizen persecuted by a police state for political reasons, many readers will see this section as the culmination of the rest of the book: after a life spent “in the passing lane” advocating drugs, insanity and violence, Thompson got caught.  Numerous Thompson biographers have noticed that the writer was never more comfortable than when he was the source of whatever craziness went around; his loud protests when he got arrested show how different things looked when he was at the receiving end of some good old-fashioned fear and loathing.  It’s enough to make one become a bit more sceptical of Thompson’s oft-quoted slogan “it never got weird enough for me.”

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