Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, William McKeen

<em class="BookTitle">Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson</em>, William McKeen

Norton, 2008, 428 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-393-06192-5

During my ongoing binge of Hunter S. Thompson material, I have come across a number of biographies, memoirs and related books about him. Not all of them are created equal, but I think I have found the definitive biography of the legendary writer: William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist.

Following Thompson’s suicide in 2005 and the time it usually takes to propose, write and publish a good non-fiction book, it’s no accident if 2007-2008 were the biggest years on record regarding Thompson memorabilia, even eclipsing the 1993 Carroll/Perry/Whitmer trilogy of biographies. The more recent crop has lot of qualities: Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s oral biography Gonzo was a compulsively readable grab-bag of Thompson stories and recollections, for instance. Unfortunately, it lacked direction and context by focusing on anecdotes and small slices of the writer’s life… and that’s where Outlaw Journalist steps into the gap, offering a complete look at Thompson’s life and works.

The first obvious difference is that McKeen approaches the subject from a professional perspective. McKeen, who teaches at the University of Florida, does his subject a favour by seeing him as a newsman: by measuring Thompson against the standards of his profession, McKeen is not only able to identify much of the sensationalism surrounding the legend, but also contextualize it against a coherent portrait of the man. No other Thompson biography, for instance, describe his Gonzo breakthrough article, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” in a chapter called “Epiphany”, linking it to Thompson’s well-documented desire to get away with whatever he wanted to do. (At the same time, McKeen makes his disdain for “Gonzo fans” clear, pointing out that Thompson was often the favourite writer of people who didn’t read.)

Thompson’s quasi-mythical substance abuse is studied in the same carefully-documented detail, McKeen going as far as suggesting that cocaine abuse had a role to play in Thompson’s silence following the publication of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. But there was a lot more to Thompson than drugs, and if Outlaw Journalist does something particularly well, it’s to give an even idea of the man behind the trappings of the legend. McKeen spends a lot of time, for instance, describing the less-exciting moments of his subject’s life: the fallow periods between projects, for instance, or the years of hand-to-mouth living between the greatest hits of his career. Thompson, we’re constantly told, was famous and yet not rich, living large on the generosity of his friends and the expense accounts of his employers.

McKeen is also meticulous in providing context for his subject’s life. Thompson’s stints for various publications are accompanied with a description of the place that the publications held at the time within American journalism. Sources, impeccably detailed either in-text or through over forty pages of assorted notes, range from Thompson texts, original interviews, past Thompson biographies or third-party sources. (A fifteen-page index completes the book) As of 2008, Outlaw Journalist is complete not only regarding the details of its subject’s life, but also about the stack of other works about him (It even mentions Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, something that eluded most of the press outside sf/comics fandom) McKeen, being neither a member of Thompson’s close circle of friends nor a past employer, is considerably more even-handed than many other biographers: He describes the tensions between Thompson and Rolling Stone magazine with a fairness that lacks from Gonzo, and doesn’t place undue importance on his own meetings with Thompson the way Paul Perry does in Fear and Loathing, for instance.

Best of all, Outlaw Journalist is a pure joy to read. Even the moments in-between Hunter’s high points are made interesting thanks to an engaging prose style and an eye for telling details. McKeen is always guiding his readers toward conclusions about his subject without highlight them. Unlike most other portraits of Hunter S. Thompson, this one feels fair, just detached enough, yet sympathetic and (make no mistake) highly entertaining at the same time.

In short, it’s the best biography of Hunter S. Thompson on the market so far, and it’s likely to remain so unless someone else spends a considerable amount of energy trying to go over the same territory. Given the myth-making that constantly surrounded Thompson, his scattered bibliography or the way the image of Thompson arguably became greater than the journalism himself, that’s a significant achievement.