Generation of Swine, Hunter S. Thompson

<em class="BookTitle">Generation of Swine</em>, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 1988 (2003 reprint), 313 pages, C$21.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-7432-5044-3

After years of relative silence between 1975 and 1985, Hunter S. Thompson was lured back to regular writing when the San Francisco Examiner offered him a regular column.  Generation of Swine certainly doesn’t try to highlight its lineage, but it’s a collection of 100 columns published between September 1985 and November 1988, in the waning years of the second Reagan administration.  The first few columns confusingly jump all over the chronology, and then settle down to a stricter order.  A lot of it, predictably enough, is centered around Irangate and the 1988 presidential elections: If you were looking for something like Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’88, this is it.

Thompson fans know, from the many biographies of the writer, that the Examiner columns stemmed from a mixture of greed and convenience, as a constantly-broke Thompson was looking for easy cash while he was back in San Francisco researching a new book at a strip club.  By the mid-eighties, Thompson’s glory days were at least a decade old: The columns in Generation of Swine clearly show a past-his-prime writer convinced that everything he writes is gold.  Despite what must have been heroic editing efforts (Thompson was a famously undisciplined writer even on his best days), the columns often read like disjointed rambling, flitting from one subject to another.

Occasionally, Thompson shows signs of inspiration: In a few columns, he lets loose an alter-ego named Skinner and gives him a few great lines, but this dramatic device is seldom developed.  Reading his thoughts on Irangate, it’s easy to be struck by the impression that Thompson is seeing this as a replay of Watergate: his certitude that either Reagan or Bush will be destroyed by the events reflect the flavour of the time (especially when Gary Hart is unexpectedly taken out of the presidential race), but they seem a bit misplaced when read later on.

The best passages are probably those which turn into self-contained short stories.  The book opens in a splendid fashion with “Saturday Night in the City” (about getting tattoos); later on, we get good pieces like “Last Dance in Dumb Town” (swindling in Colorado), “The Beast with Three Backs” (violence and sex in Montréal) and “The Gizzard of Darkness” (a trip to the fortune-teller turns sombre political punditry into something even darker).  Those pieces, un-tethered from reality, have the advantage of allowing Thompson to let loose with his usual world-weary fascination for violence: by the time he describes how Bill Murray and himself beat up punks in Montréal, we’re so deeply in his fantasies that we no longer care.

The rest of the book, sadly, isn’t like that.  A collection of catch-phrases and repetitive obsessions, Generation of Swine best showcases how badly Thompson had come to believe in his own mystique.  The columns read not like tales of the eighties, but as how someone from the seventies would perceive the eighties.  From the outside, it’s hard to guess how much impact Thompson’s drugs and apathy problems had on the writing of the column (or how much of it was written by other hands), but the overall impression is one of recycling material, of well-worn rants about new names.

Fortunately, there are the occasional gems in the collection, enough to make us realize how well Thompson would write when he could.  His use of invective may be repetitious, but it’s seldom dull.  Nonetheless, Generation of Swine still ranks pretty low in the Thompson bibliography: Most of the columns were written to fill newsprint and get a weekly pay-check.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing (after all, that’s how most of On the Campaign Trail ‘72 came to be), but it takes a writer of superior skill and interest to go beyond that and deliver something that is worth reading twenty years later.  Thompson wasn’t always able to reach that level by the late eighties.

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