Da Capo Press, 2009, 411 pages, C$22.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-306-81651-2 sept4
Depending on your level of cynicism, there are at least two ways of looking at Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, a lengthy compendium of interviews with Hunter S. Thompson. You can see it as an homage to an American writer whose career spanned decades, an over-sized personality whose personal excesses were as legendary as his best-known works and an infamous wit who almost unfailingly provided interviewers with great material. But you can also see it as yet another brick in the growing cottage industry that revolves around Thompson, an industry that began in earnest a decade before Thompson’s suicide in 2005.
Since the mid-nineties, we’ve seen the publication of two volumes of his letters, re-editions of his rarer out-of-print books (in matching sets, even), a number of personal memoirs and a few more dispassionate biographies. Given Thompson’s lifelong obsession with money, it would certainly please him to understand that he now accounts for a small sliver of the publishing industry’s revenue stream. For fans and readers, though, it raises the question as to when we’ll reach saturation point. As the wait drags on for The Mutineer, a third-and-last volume of his personal letters, the arrival of Ancient Gonzo Wisdom sidesteps the issue by offering fans exactly what it promises: a highly enjoyable collection of interviews.
Spanning decades between 1967 and 2005, this book follows Thompson’s career as he goes from an obscure writer solely known for a book about the Hell’s Angels, to his growing fame as the first gonzo journalist, to the elder curmudgeon whose words passed into legend. A media biography of sorts, Ancient Gonzo Wisdom is perhaps most interesting in the look it offers at those who talk to Thompson: their questions change as Thompson’s celebrity grows, and different venues focus on different aspects of the writer’s life. By their inclusion here, a few landmark pieces are now easily available to Thompson scholars as well: The infamous 1974 Playboy interview by Craig Vetter is reprinted (albeit edited) and those who are curious about Thompson’s lectures to college students will be glad to see a few of them transcribed here.
Some of the most interesting pieces go beyond the usual interview format to tackle specific venues or subjects. Early on, a lengthy and detailed interview for a Boston radio station focuses almost exclusively on politics. Twice, High Times discusses drugs with “elderly dope fiend” Thompson, first in 1977 and then again in 2003. In-between, the Washington Journalism Review and the Paris Review discuss journalism. Perhaps the strangest piece is self-avowed fan Phoebe Legere’s interview for Puritan adult magazine: the two seem to know each other intimately, and the interview soon takes on airs of a comedy skit in-between discussions of sexual techniques: “Phoebe screams, he brandishes the gun” [P.245]
Not all interviews are coherent, though, and (even leaving aside the further editing specific to the book) there can be a dramatic difference from venue to venue in how well they edit Thompson’s words. Some interviews are barely understandable, while others distill Thompson’s words into quasi-epigrams: One of the best editing decisions is to close the book with a posthumous May 2005 Playboy piece which boils down a week’s worth of discussions into solid “postcard wisdom”.
More than half of the pieces presented in Ancient Gonzo Wisdom date from the last ten years of Thompson’s life, which can be explained by the wider availability of recent material but also end up presenting a view of Thompson biased toward the latter-day legend. It’s both amusing and dispiriting to see that Thompson saw the Bush administration in a clear light well before most Americans did; on the other hand, some of the last interviews show Thompson sliding toward conspiracy theories from the JFK assassination to the “9/11 was an inside job” truthers.
If nothing else, Ancient Gonzo Wisdom presents, in a nutshell, the evolution of Thompson as seen by popular media. The introductions to the pieces (as writers frequently have trouble reaching Thompson) are often as interesting as the interviews themselves, and the sheer force of Thompson’s personality has no trouble shining through the page. This may not be an essential Thompson book, but it’s a good read and a decent addition to the Thompson bibliography. But seriously, when is The Mutineer coming out?
[November 2009: There is another compilation of interviews out there: Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson, edited by Beef Torrey and Kevin Simonson for the very-serious University Press of Mississippi. Much of the material will feel familiar to veteran Thompson readers, and even more so for readers of Ancient Gonzo Wisdom. The emphasis here is usually placed on Thompson-the-writer or Thompson-the-Journalist, although latter pieces tend to focus on Thompson-the-Difficult-Interview-Subject: Typical post-1990 pieces tend to include a lengthy description of the interview process as prologue, sidebar and epilogue to Thompson’s words. Unlike Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, the interviews here have not been edited and are printed as they first appeared –including the Vetter interview for Playboy, which appears in both collections.]