The Great Shark Hunt, Hunter S. Thompson

<em class="BookTitle">The Great Shark Hunt</em>, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 1979 (2003 reprint), 602 pages, C$25.00 tpb, ISBN 0-7432-5045-1

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Hunter S. Thompson’s work is how short his most productive period has been: From Hell’s Angels to the end of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, his best years all took place during the 1965-1975 decade, with significant fallow periods within: Aside from his prolix biweekly schedule during the 1972 election (one that he wasn’t able to sustain past August/September), Thompson wrote far less than you’d expect from such a well-known journalist.

But still frequently enough that a collection of his best work between 1960 and 1980 manages to fill a hefty trade paperback. From the National Observer pieces in which he criss-crossed South America to the post-celebrity pieces of the late seventies when Thompson had carte blanche to write about anything, The Great Shark Hunt is the essential collection of his pure journalism work.

All the big classics are there: “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” marked the launch of Gonzo journalism, where the journalist becomes a primary motor for the events being described. Even today, no one is too sure how much of the piece is outright fiction and how much is altered fact: it certainly reads like a lively short story, and still works best as such even as the culture revolving around the Kentucky Derby has completely changed.

Other landmark pieces include “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan”, a typically apocalyptic piece (featuring attorney Oscar D’Acosta) that would eventually lead to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That article would be bookended six years later by “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat”, which served as a requiem of sort for the still-absent D’Acosta. In between we get the entire 1972 campaign, the Watergate hearings, and the beginning of Thompson’s legend as a drug-addicted, catastrophe-minded, anti-authoritarian symbol. The title piece of the book may have been the first and purest piece written by Thompson as playing on his own legend: The subject becomes secondary to Thompson’s chemically-fueled adventures facing the emptiness of his assignment.

For fans, half the fun is in discovering lesser-known material. There are a number of more overly humorous pieces here that leave an impact, from the Swiftian satire of “The so-called ‘Jesus Freak’ scare” to the overblown aggression of “The Police Chief” (which features the line “[tear gas] only slaps at the problem: nerve gas solves it” [P.416]). Other great moment in Thompson history include the bittersweet let-down at seeing Nixon resign in disgrace in “Mr. Nixon Has Cashed His Check”, to a fanciful speech from the balcony at the beginning of “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl” that brings to mind the kinship between Thompson and Transmetropolitan‘s Spider Jerusalem.

In many ways, The Great Shark Hunt is designed to be the perfect introductory volume to Thompson’s work: In addition to the pieces that would make his renown as a Gonzo journalist, we get some of the best excerpts from his three best-known books: The “Edge” piece from Hell’s Angels is here, as are the first few pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the “220 million used car salesmen” rant from the end of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. If you only get one Thompson book, get Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… but if it’s not available, you won’t go wrong with The Great Shark Hunt.

Still, it could have been a better volume. Insufficiently organized in four sections (unnamed, but summarized as “The Birth of Gonzo”, “Politics 1968-1976”, “Pre-Gonzo Journalism” and “Full-Gonzo Thompson”), the collection often seems to veer from one piece to another without reason, and now sorely lacks connecting material. Thompson’s prose is always an acquired taste, but the book often seems to assume that the reader is already convinced of Thompson’s brilliance.

Hunter S. Thompson’s flame may have burned too briefly, but never as brightly as during the years chronicled in The Great Shark Hunt. If you’ve been wondering which volume best showcases Thompson’s considerable writing talents, look no further.

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