Hey Rube, Hunter S. Thompson

<em class="BookTitle">Hey Rube</em>, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 2005 reprint of 2004 original, 246 pages, C$17.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-684-87320-6

So this is it.  Hey Rube marks the end of my 2009 Hunter S. Thompson Reading Project: All of Thompson’s work read in a year, marking twenty books, thousands of pages and fifty years of American history along the way.

A collection of sports columns written for ESPN’s web site between 2000 and 2004, Hey Rube marks a trip back to Thompson’s first job as a journalist, covering sports for a military newspaper.  It’s also a wrap-up of sorts, as it brings together many of the elements that defined his career: Digressing often in politics, his life in Woody Creek, excesses and celebrity friendship, the columns take on a more vital quality in the wake of 9/11, as Thompson was one of the first to see clearly beyond the fear and loathing that took over his country at the time.  When the going gets weird, the weird turns pro, and so in times of apocalypse, you could depend on Thompson to be the most reliable commentator.

For Thompson readers, this collection is 246 pages of indulgence.  Thompson’s writing tics have never been so obvious, what with the Capitalized Words, recurring exclamations (“Selah!”) & ampersands.  Only someone with his reputation and few editing restraints could get away with such quirks. As for themes, his columns often (and by often, I mean “nearly always”) turn to gambling, fictionalized stories of his life on the mountain, vicious rants against the Bush administration and a satisfied tone of “this world is going to hell, and I’ve told you so.”  Some of the material endures, although the sports references are instantly dated and the political references will soon follow as we shake memories of that bad decade.  It’s a book for Thompson fans, and it’s short enough to be considered a nice concluding volume.

Not that it’s likely to be the final word from Thompson: a third volume of his letters have been announced (and delayed many times, from a 2008 release to February 2011 as of this writing), while reading between the lines of his biographers it’s obvious that there’s enough material left in the Thompson archives to fill at least another collection of material.  Rumours abound about finished but unpublished manuscripts, from The Gun Lobby to The Night Manager to Polo is my Life to early novel Prince Jellyfish… and others.  Whether those are publishable is an entirely different matter, but like many cult writers, Thompson seems poised to be a more reliable author in death than in life.

Still, “Hunter S. Thompson’s last book” offers an opportunity to summarize what I’ve learned from my reading project.

The first is a cautious agreement with fans and biographers who say that Thompson’s golden age was a brief period between 1970 and 1974, sometimes between “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” and “The Great Shark Hunt”.  Sure, you would have to add Hell’s Angels (1966) and quite a few short pieces between 1975-2005, but much of the essential Thompson fits between four covers: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Great Shark Hunt, Hell’s Angels, and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaing Trail ’72.  After 1975, he became stuck in his own celebrity, content to turn the same tricks –or not write at all.  Drugs gave a lot to Thompson… but they may have taken much as well.

My second conclusion is that while Hunter S. Thompson is one of the great personalities of twentieth-century America, it’s clear that I really couldn’t have tolerated him in real life.  His profiles all describe someone unable to function in society, an aggressor who didn’t really care about other people.  How much of this was a legend designed to get other people to leave him alone was debatable.  Still, if you’re not convinced, you have your pick of essays.  Wenner and Seymour’s oral biography Gonzo is crammed with fantastic stories about him, while William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist offers the best and more nuanced biography of him and Simon Cowan’s Hunter S. Thompson is a revealing look as seen by a close friend.  Read those and you too will be able to say whether you would have liked to meet the man.

My third Grand Statement about my year spent in Gonzoland is that through Thompson, I got to learn a lot more about America from the sixties to 9/11: Between 1965 and 1975, Thompson found himself at the epicentre of radical social changes and, though his coverage, was able to write down what it felt to be there at the time.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas endures even today as a great book because of this sense, and the portrait we get of America from Thompson’s fanciful gonzo journalism is perhaps more truthful than most objective accounts of the time.  If you start tracing connections from Thompson to other works and writers, you can get an unconventional crash-course in modern history.

There will never be another Hunter S. Thompson.  That, as much, is obvious.

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