Ballantine Books, 1995 re-edition of 1994 original, 245 pages, C$20.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-345-39635-8
Every critical assessment of Hunter S. Thompson’s work is clear on at least one thing: His latter-career work isn’t nearly as interesting as his early-seventies days of glory. Better than Sex certainly bolsters that theory, its focus on the 1992 Presidential race being so closely comparable to Thompson’s own classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
Twenty years later, though, Thompson isn’t flying around the country to cover the presidential campaign: He’s sitting at home, often drunk, and watching the whole thing via satellite TV. The bile, the verve, the insults are still there, but the insights… not so much. Oh, it’s not a strictly couch-bound book: Thompson did play a gonzo role of sorts in meeting then-candidate Bill Clinton with other Rolling Stones writers early in the 1992 campaign, but most of the book is spent commenting events as they happen on TV, along with long digressions on the Reagan/Bush years and memories of Thompson’s own political experiences.
Design-wise, the book reflects the scattered nature of its writings: A sometimes-collage of various disparate elements (including pictures, memos, faxes, buttons, newspaper excerpt and a time-line running throughout the book), Better Than Sex can often be more confusing than enlightening in addressing its reader: Some pieces start out as being on a letterhead, then flow into the book’s typical typeface without transition. While the effect highlights Thompson’s favourite device of blending reality with fiction, it also reminds us of the sham nature of many of Thompson’s so-called letters to other recipients.
A further problem in reading about the 1992 election a bit more than 15 years after the fact is that it’s an inglorious period to recall right now. It’s not recent enough to be interesting for our own purposes (in American political terms, 1992 is at least three generations ago), while not being distant enough to take on a patina of historical respectability. Then there’s our unfair knowledge that the true course of the Clinton administration would be far weirder than even Thompson could imagine.
This being said, it’s no accident if the better parts of Better Than Sex are the more outrageously fictional sections. Thompson being told about Clinton’s childhood bully is one of the book’s highlights, for instance, and so is his fanciful account of running amok in Little Rock, Arkansas on the night of the 1992 presidential election. (The latter even features Thompson being cheated out of his money by James Carville, with a cameo appearance by Mary Matalin.) Perhaps the third high point of the book is the Rolling Stones meeting with Clinton, although it’s completely coloured by Thompson’s negative impression of Clinton and his early answer to drug-enforcement questions. (In the Gonzo oral biography, readers will find a more balanced assessment of how the meeting truly went and how Thompson didn’t contribute much to the discussion beyond a few early grumpy remarks.) Honourable mentions would have to go to Thompson’s Nixon obituary, which closes the book and is enjoyable not just for its unrelenting vitriol, but also as an epitaph of sorts for the politics with which Thompson was most comfortable.
Otherwise, Better Than Sex generally reads like a desk-bound attempt to recreate the magic of what Thompson was able to capture in his 1972 memoir. From a transfer of his relationship from Frank Mankiewicz to James Carville and his ineffective attempts to contribute to the Clinton Campaign just like he hobnobbed with the McGovern staffers, Thompson comes across as a writer long past his prime, trying to ingratiate himself with a crowd that doesn’t have much use for him or his era. It inevitably leads to a screed against the “healthy and clean and cautious” Clintonistas, but the contrast couldn’t be clearer. (It’s probably mean to mention that Clinton actually won, unlike McGovern or Thompson himself.)
As a chunk of Thompson’s bibliography, Better Than Sex shows nothing more exciting than self-repetitive nature of Thompson’s latter work. It milks some expressions for all their worth (in addition to the usual Thompson gonzo standbys, the worst offender here is “Politics is the art of controlling one’s environment”; a good sentiment, but repeated so often that it loses much of its freshness), relies on gold old-fashioned invective as a rhetorical crutch and repeats elements of the Thompson biography that really have nothing new to teach us. It’s still entertaining (which is more than one can say about most political memoirs from 1994) but it also calls to mind better and bolder Thompson books.