Thunder’s Mouth, 1992 (2004 revision), 274 pages, US$14.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56025-605-2
Since I have declared 2009 “The Year of Hunter S. Thompson” in my reading list, I have decided to supplement my Thompson with books about Thompson. While the writer may have lived only one life, it’s rich enough to allow many different interpretations by biographers.
There’s a fundamental difference, though, in the books that were written while Thompson was alive and those published after his suicide in 2005. Much like there’s a difference between the books that seek to portray Thompson as the wild and crazy gonzo writer, and those who seek to go beyond the surface. Paul Perry’s Fear and Loathing, alas falls in the less-satisfying categories.
The biggest problem with Perry’s book is that it was written in the early nineties, and its 2004 re-edition barely adds four pages of meaningless fluff. While it’s true that Thompson’s most interesting work spanned only a few years in the late sixties and early seventies, it’s also fair to say that any book that does not deal with Thompson’s last years (including his resurgence partly fueled by the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film), and ultimately his death, is incomplete. Time has moved on, leaving Perry’s biography in place.
The other problem is that while Fear and Loathing acknowledges the gap between Thompson-the-legend and Thompson-the-man, it seems quite happy in printing the legend. In many ways, it’s the only possible choice when trying to fit Thompson’s life in less than 300 pages: cut the periods where nothing is happening, print the good stories, and keep going. This isn’t an entirely superficial book (although the lack of references is telling), but it’s best read as an introduction to Thompson, not a definitive biography.
It probably sounds as if I didn’t enjoy Fear and Loathing, but that’s really not true. After a rather dull and distant first section (up until Hell’s Angels, roughly), the biography picks up once Perry can interview people with stories to tell about Thompson the wild man. Ralph Steadman (who illustrated the cover and provided a small color portfolio of illustrations) is one of the book’s primary sources, and the energy of the narrative picks up once he’s able to talk, first-hand, about the Kentucky Derby, or the America’s Cup event they were asked to cover together, not to mention the disastrous trip in Zaire for the Ali-Foreman boxing match. It becomes even more interesting once Perry himself enters the picture as the Runner’s World editor who was able to convince Thompson to write an article on the Hawaii Triathlon. If Fear and Loathing has a highlight, it’s in providing a quasi-epilogue to Hell’s Angels by describing first-hand a meeting between Hunter and Ken Kesey, twenty-five years after separating. Another strong moment is in learning of dealings between Thompson and editing legend Ian Ballantine. The second half is a joy to read, even when it’s glossing over important moments.
But as suggested above, the book ends on a truly strange note, depicting 1990s Thompson becoming a fitness freak (in part thanks to Perry), mere paragraphs after discussing his 1990 arrest. This is a view somewhat inconsistent with the other profiles of Thompson, and though it provides a certain form of narrative closure, it seems trivial in light of the next fifteen years of Thompson’s life.
Now that the first wave of post-eulogy titles is firmly in bookstores, we’re getting not only the complete story of Thompson’s life, but well-rounded ones as well. I will admit that this review was written as I was reading William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist, a biography that is, in almost all respects, a better book that Fear and Loathing. But it’s also twice the size and is written by a journalism expert. Fear and Loathing, for all of its shortcomings, does manage to provide a short, coherent and quick overview of Thompson’s life: perfect for newcomers to the gonzo legend, or people with no time to spare.