Back Bay Books, 2007, 467 pages, C$17.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-316-00528-9
Some will be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of writer/journalist Hunter S. Thompson. After all, there’s no comparing our prose styles, and I couldn’t be farther away from Thompson on the drinking/drugs/bad-behavior spectrum. (I make straight-edgers look like boozy degenerates.) But what keeps me coming back to Thompson’s work is his strong prose and the strength of the convictions that shine through his articles. For most people, though, Thompson-the-writer remains a second to Thompson-the-man, still the stuff of legend decades after his best work and his worst excesses.
It took a chance theater viewing of the documentary GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON to rekindle my interest in Thompson’s work: For years, I accumulated his books but never committed to a chronological read-through. Well, no more: This is the year of the Thompson, and there’s no better way to begin than by a look at the man, the life and the legend with Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour’s oral biography Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson. (The movie is arguably adapted from the book, but both stand as different works in their own right. The midium is the message, and so the film doesn’t offer the depth of the book, while the book doesn’t have the archival material showing Thompson at work or play.)
Oral biographies are basically snippets of personal recollections artfully edited in a coherent whole. It allows for many descriptions from different perspectives, sometimes strengthening the theme, sometimes contradicting it. Given Thompson’s legendary excesses, an oral biography is just about the only way to do him justice, as only the accumulation of first-hand witnesses can convince us
Like most biographies, this one starts at the beginning –Hunter’s troubled childhood, running around making trouble until his arrest and expeditious referral to the army in lieu of incarceration. The tone having been set early, the rest follows almost naturally: the wild early years in New York, Puerto Rico and San Francisco, followed by the breakthrough success of Hell’s Angels, the Aspen sheriff race that brought him to the attention of Rolling Stones magazine, then the two Fear and Loathing books about Las Vegas and the Campaign trail ’72. After that, Thompson-the-man recedes and makes way for Thompson-the-legend: As the contributors allude to, Hunter took comfort in living the myth that he and others had created for himself. Alas, it made him even more uncontrollable and indisciplined. His work, not so coincidentally, also began to slide after that point: The testimony of the participants makes it clear that it took heroic efforts to bring a Thompson piece to print, but left unsaid is how much of Thompson’s published work really owes to the editors who put everything together at the other end of Thompson’s crises, substance abuse and unwillingness to act as a professional.
This dovetails nicely into the foremost lesson of this biography: Thompson was a nightmare to live with. The same hard drinking, copious substance abuse, pranking and womanizing that made Thompson-the-legend so impressive also made Thompson-the-man impossible to tolerate on a daily basis. Even close friends have stories of awful episodes. The accumulation of such incidents, contribution after contribution, also make it clear that Thompson’s eccentricities were a lifestyle. The book’s second half, once past the early seventies, make it hard to avoid thinking that Thompson could have, should have been a far more active participant in American culture if it wasn’t for his strong streak of self-destruction. (There’s something blackly humorous in reading a doctor’s opinion that “Hunter had a superhuman liver.” [P.396]) For him, the end came ingloriously by way of self-inflicted gunshot in 2005.
As a tribute to Thompson, Gonzo is essential: It shows that the legend was based on something real, but never sugarcoats the price that Thompson and his friends paid for his excesses. The worst thing that one can say about the book is that it’s too short (“Freak Power” is only mentioned twice, for instance). Thompson may have the last laugh over his biographers, having lived a life too rich to be contained between two covers.
[March 2009: After binging on several more Hunter S. Thompson biographies, I have a slightly better perspective on the book: Gonzo may not be the best in-depth Thompson biography (for that, I would recommend William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist) but it deepens our understanding of Thompson in ways that are difficult to explain in a straight biography: By allowing people to tell stories about Thompson, Gonzo strengthens the legend, but also relays the impact of the legend on others. On the other hand, The lack of a unified thread can also be a problem at times; as I read other biographies, I found places where Gonzo skipped over important events, and failed to connect them with others. It may be best read as a companion to a more conventional biography, as a way to extend the Thompson experience.]