Hunter S. Thompson

The Rum Diary (2011)

The Rum Diary (2011)

(In theaters, October 2011) It’s a good thing that I’m a certified fan of Hunter S. Thompson’s work, because otherwise I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Rum Diary as much.  It’s already a trying experience even for those who have absorbed Thompson’s life and work: Thompson’s bottom-of-the-drawer “first novel” was a triumph of atmosphere over plot, as it followed a young journalist as he made his way throughout 1960s Puerto Rico and lost much of his illusions.  Blending fiction with autobiography, The Rum Diary offered a more melancholic view of Thompson’s early years than you’d expect.  The movie version has a hard time trying to put a plot where the novel doesn’t have one, and the result is a bit of low-key comedy interspaced with more serious plotting about corruption and unbridled development.  Many of the anecdotes are amusing (although it speaks volume about the film’s pacing that the trailer has a far clearer sense of comedy), but the dramatic narrative of The Rum Diary peters off in a “nothing worked out, but we all learned a lot so… to be continued…” fishtail of a conclusion.  The film works best as an affectionate homage to Thompson himself, as it clearly feels like a romanced “birth of an author” narrative: If you don’t know what Thompson would go on to write after his own Puerto Rico transformative experience, then the ending of the film will be more frustrating than anything else.  Fortunately, Johnny Depp is wonderful as a young Thompson (it’s a performance clearly meant to lead into his own work in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), while Amber Heard finally makes an impression in a paper-thin role.  As a drama for people who haven’t read Thompson, it’s a hit-and-miss film with a strong Puerto Rican atmosphere… but frankly, this one is for the fans.  And even they may feel that the two-hour film runs a bit long.

Hey Rube, Hunter S. Thompson

Hey Rube, 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.

Kingdom of Fear, Hunter S. Thompson

Kingdom of Fear, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 2003, 354 pages, C$24.00 tp, ISBN 0-684-87324-9

Given the apocalyptic streak running through Hunter S. Thompson’s life-long work (after all, even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a foreboding meditation on the gone-away sixties), it makes perfect sense that he would have been reinvigorated by the cataclysmic tone of the post-2001 era.  So it is that Kingdom of Fear shows him fully settled in his cranky-sage-from-the-Colorado-mountains role, hurtling invectives at everyone and muttering darkly about the future of the republic.  It doesn’t necessarily make the book any more vital than any of his post-1980 work, but it certainly makes him a bit more interesting to read.

Not that this is always the case.  True to his tendency to repeat his self-aggrandizing mythology, Hunter spends an awful lot of time repeating known stories.  Kingdom of Fear is a collage of previously-published pieces, reprinted material about Thompson and a fair chunk of original material.  But even the original material tends to run in circles: We get to hear, again, about his experiences running for Sheriff, or his 1990 arrest.  He goes over his own biography at length, sometime illuminating periods of relative silence, but just as often rehashing stories read elsewhere.  His writing tics also take on, more than ever, the appearance of self-indulgence in-between gratuitous substitution of ampersands in place of the common “and”.  Also typical of Thompson’s overall oeuvre is the incoherence of the book, which flits from theme to theme without much use for signposts.

At other times, disappointments are rife.  Kingdom of Fear is the only book, to my knowledge, in which Thompson writes more than briefly about his experience in San Francisco at the end of the eighties (working as a figurehead “night manager” at a strip club) or his travels to Cuba and Grenada.  But even then, we don’t get much more than a few pages: The Caribbean trips are heavily fictionalized, while most of the San Francisco material seems to have been kept in the still-unpublished, perhaps never-written The Night Manager/Polo is my Life.

Other bits fare better.  Thompson saw early on the consequences of the national panic that gripped his country in the wake of 9/11, and his savage denunciations of the Bush administration ended up being more accurate than anyone was willing to admit in 2003.  For him, the whole War on Terror era feels familiar; a return to the worst days of the sixties, perhaps even to 1964 Chicago where he, as a reporter, was beaten by police.  Nixon being dead, Thompson found no problems in saying that Bush was worse than Nixon.  As usual, Thompson’s style may be repetitive, but it still carries a certain power at shorter lengths.

But there are also a few gems here and there, finally reprinted in book form.  The best is almost certainly a 1992 short story called “Fear and Loathing in Elko”, a dark piece mixing violent prose with caricatures of popular figures (including a “Judge” with an uncanny resemblance to Clarence Thomas) to produce a terrific short story.  (So terrific, unfortunately, that a good chunk of its middle third was published as “Death of a Poet” in the tiny Screwjack anthology.)  To give you an idea, it starts with a narrator running over a herd of sheep in the middle of a highway and then goes on to more stomach-churning material.  Late in the book, “Fear and Loathing at the Taco Stand” fictionalizes his Hollywood experience and the way he met his second wife.

Having struggled against a fat and happy country in the eighties and nineties, Thompson seems to regain some of his relevance in times of crisis.  Kingdom of Fear won’t do much to quieten critics who maintain that Thompson’s golden age was a bubble around 1972: For every good page, there seems to be ten filled with redundant filler or empty outrage.  But this volume, published two years before Thompson’s suicide, also shows that he took to bad times as it was his natural environment: it comes as a validation of his predictions and his belief that most Americans were part of “the new dumb”.  For someone who kept writing “When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn Pro”, the post-9/11 era was practically a homecoming.  It’s not hard to see how he would consider those years to be the final proof of his “death of the American dream” thesis.  Sadly, this would prove to be nearly the end of the road for him: His next book, Hey Rube, would prove to be his last, and consist of collected columns about sports and politics.

Better than Sex, Hunter S. Thompson

Better than Sex, Hunter S. Thompson

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.

Songs of the Doomed, Hunter S. Thompson

Songs of the Doomed, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 1990 (2002 reprint), 355 pages, C$24.00 pb, ISBN 0-7432-4099-5

As my sequential reading of Hunter S. Thompson’s work progresses onward, I have to read about the worst years like I read about the best: After the glory years of the early seventies, Thompson’s output during the eighties became a lot more fragmented: Generation of Swine (1989) collected a hundred of his San Francisco Examiner columns, while Songs of the Doomed riffles through Thompson’s archives to present snippets of material written between 1950 and 1990.  It’s billed as a retrospective, but it feels a lot like the publication of redundant material wrapped around a few worthwhile pieces that followed The Great Shark Hunt.

Part of this impression is formed by my extensive readings about Thompson, much of it published after Songs of the Doomed.  While the publication of excerpts from The Rum Diary must have caused a sensation back in 1990, it’s more interesting today for comparative purposes given how the entire novel manuscript was revised and published in 1998.  Some of the letters included here are also available in one of the two books of letters published so far.  On the other hand, the snippets from Prince Jellyfish in Songs of the Doomed still remain today the only publicly-available chapters from Thompson’s first novel.

From time to time, it seems as if Thompson is either recycling notes, or reprinting familiar material.  It doesn’t help that we’re rarely told when excerpts are reprints or take-offs on familiar material.  “The Edge” passage from Hell’s Angels is reprinted as “Midnight on the Coast Highway”, whereas what looks like another draft of the high-water mark in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is presented as, indeed, “High-Water Mark”.  Thompson scarcely introduces his pieces either: in-between text, we get italicized anecdotes that don’t offer much to those who have gone through the rest of his (auto-)biographical material.

Still, there is some more interesting material at hand.  Thompson may have officially published very little outright fiction, but he kept having ideas for novels and stories, and some of those abortive segments are included here, including notes on The Silk Road (a crime thriller inspired by the influx of Cuban refugees in early-eighties Florida) and a promising beginning called “Fear and Loathing in Sacramento”, intriguing despite elements that approach self-parody.  The snippets of Sacramento were apparently published as part of Thompson’s final columns for the SF Examiner, and they go well with other pieces that seem just as determined to dip into pure fiction.

But the real gem of the book is one of the few gonzo articles written too late to be included in The Great Shark Hunt: “Love on the Palm Beach Express: The Pulitzer Divorce Trial” is one of the last articles that Thompson would write as a journalist, and it’s a savage look at the lifestyle of the rich and scandalous in Palm Beach, Florida.  Thomspon scholars already know that this was the article that made Thompson realize that he was too famous to keep doing journalism work: his presence disrupted the trial he was supposed to cover, although it’s ironic that we get no trace of this very gonzoesque incident in the article itself.

Even for those who start reading Songs of the Doomed with an open mind and the best of intentions, the sheer familiarity of the material makes it tough to disagree with the assessment that Thompson was a shadow of his former creative self by the eighties.  The last chunk of the book focuses on the writer’s early 1990 legal problems, but the impact of that section seems to operate on an entirely different level than Thompson intended: while he portrays himself as a downtrodden citizen persecuted by a police state for political reasons, many readers will see this section as the culmination of the rest of the book: after a life spent “in the passing lane” advocating drugs, insanity and violence, Thompson got caught.  Numerous Thompson biographers have noticed that the writer was never more comfortable than when he was the source of whatever craziness went around; his loud protests when he got arrested show how different things looked when he was at the receiving end of some good old-fashioned fear and loathing.  It’s enough to make one become a bit more sceptical of Thompson’s oft-quoted slogan “it never got weird enough for me.”

Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson, Ed. Anita Thompson

Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson, Ed. Anita Thompson

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.]

Generation of Swine, Hunter S. Thompson

Generation of Swine, 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.

Hunter S. Thompson, Simon Cowan

Hunter S. Thompson, Simon Cowan

The Lyons Press, 2009, 252 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-1-59921-357-6

Four years after Thompson’s suicide, the market for his biographies is booming.  Other than William McKean’s dispassionate, meticulous and mesmerizing Outlaw Journalist, there has been a small but steady stream of personal recollections of the man by friends.  Simon Cowan’s Hunter S. Thompson is entering a crowded market, and one of the questions that arises isn’t just whether it accurately portrays Thompson, but if it manages to say something new about him.

Cowan has a privileged perspective in that he grew up near Thompson’s Woody Creek (one of the first chapters has him describing, as a high-school student, one of his first meetings with Thompson), eventually became a caretaker on Thompson’s ranch -imagine having Thompson as a landlord!- and ended up a journalist with solid publication credits.  This gives him both the anecdotes to write a personal recollection of what it was like to live alongside Thompson, and the writing skills to deliver an overall evaluation of Thompson’s work.

The result is a surprisingly good piece of work that few Thompson fans may have expected.  It does more than go beyond the legend.  Cowan was close enough to Thompson to see him at his best and worst: The revelations in the book will do much to confirm a few suspicions.

If you have only one chapter to read, make it “Guns, Lawyers and Money”: This is where we learn much about Thompson’s history of legal trouble (including a few DUI incidents that, to the best of my recollections, were not often mentioned in other Thompson biographies), his constant need for attorneys (and tangled relationship with them), the fact that hasn’t a very good shot despite his fondness for weapons, and does its best to answer the question of why Thompson was always broke despite -especially in later years- a fairly comfortable stream of royalties.  Part of the answer, unsurprisingly enough, is drugs: Cowan loosely estimates that Thompson’s lifetime drug tab to be around two million dollars (not all of which came out of his pocket, mind you), which puts to rest one my own long-standing questions about Thompson’s lifestyle.  Add to that Thompson’s lavish and impulsive spending habits and you do end up with someone who, financially speaking, spent his entire life on the edge.

Cowan is not necessarily any kinder when it comes to the mystique of Thompson-as-a-writer, especially during his least productive years: Cowan was around when Thompson wrote the San Francisco Examiner columns collected in Generation of Swine, and his description of the process clearly highlights the importance that his editors and assistants had in re-shaping Thompson’s prose into something workable.  Cowan isn’t particularly sympathetic to the moments where Thompson drank or snorted himself in a stupor: One particularly affecting passage describes the scene when a high-ranking Gary Hart staffer, seeking advice in the wake of the scandal that destroyed Hart’s 1988 presidential bid, discovers a “nearly catatonic” Thompson unable to do anything but “open his eyes, roll his head around and utter noises” [P.201].

Even for those who have read nearly everything else by or about Thompson, Cowan’s book offers an unflinching series of anecdotes and fits them into the known legend.  Cowan tells the real story behind The Curse of Lono, describes some of Thompson’s celebrity encounters, recalls with a cringe his participation in a failed intervention to get Thompson to lay off drugs, and eventually acknowledges the role of Thompson’s abuse of his female companions in driving a wedge between himself and his subject.

But best of all, the book is narrated with a strong sense of what makes anecdotes work, and Cowan has enough distance from his subject to be able to ties those anecdotes in an even-handed portrait of his subject.  Hunter S. Thompson is a breezy, fair and often-amusing look at a fascinating subject.  It complements such works as The Kitchen Readings and Outlaw Journalist without contradicting or repeating them, and ranks among the finest books written so far by Thompson acquaintances.  Few may have expected this book, but most will agree that it’s now an essential part of any Thompson retrospective.

Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 2000 (2006 paperback reprint), 756 pages, C$21.00, ISBN 978-0-684-87316-9

This second volume of Hunter S. Thompson’s letters takes us to Thompson’s most memorable years: 1968-1976, spanning not only the eight years of the Nixon/Ford administration, but most of Thompson’s best-know work.  Gonzo journalism was born in 1970 with “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas written not too long after, eventually published in the middle of the 1972 presidential campaign that Thompson was covering for Rolling Stones and eventually ended in Fear and Loathing ’72: On the Campaign Trail.  Add to that the continuing echo of Hell’s Angels (1966), his candidacy for Aspen’s Sheriff position, Thompson’s increasing fame and the crystallization of his reputation as a hard-living journalist and you end up with a fascinating eight years.

What editor Douglas Brinkley has done with this second volume of letters is similar to the work accomplished on the first volume of Thompson letters (The Proud Highway), with a few differences.  For one thing, there are quite a bit more contextual notes to explain passing allusions, which reflects Thompson’s gradual accession to national affairs.  The other difference is that the book reprints a number of letters sent to Thompson, including a number of dark and angry missives from Oscar Acosta, the “Chicano Lawyer” often mentioned in Thompson’s seventies work that was so famously parodied in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  It’s easy to see the rough nature of their friendship, and even easier to see how it breaks down to mutual hostility.  Other notables whose letters are included are Tom Wolfe, George McGovern, Katharine Graham, Pat Buchanan, Jann Wenner, Gary Hart and Jimmy Carter.  There are also, unusually, snippets of Thompson prose that don’t seem to have been reprinted anywhere else –including fragments about his influential experience in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention, where he got caught in riots and beaten up by policemen.

Many of the notes and caveats about The Proud Highway also apply here: This is the closest we’ll ever get to a Thompson autobiography, especially as it details on a quasi-weekly basis what Thompson is working on.  (Alas, reading the book as it details numerous projects that Thompson never finished is enough to make one wonder about What Could Have Been –am I the only one who thinks “Guts Balls” could have been a splendid Palahniuk-like story?)  It’s a very, very long book, and the low density of content will make it of interest to dedicated Thompson fans.  There are minor revelations here and there, but rest assured that those have already been cherry-picked by the recent wave of posthumous Thompson biographies.  A few photos, some never seen before, are inserted between each year’s worth of letters.

A few things do evolve, though: Thompson’s worries about money never completely disappear, but Fear and Loathing in America takes place after his move to Woody Creek and the relative peace of mind that a stable home base provided to him.  At the same time, though, Thompson’s prose style finally solidifies in the aggressive gonzo style that he would keep until his death in 2005: the strong-willed but polite southern gentleman of his formative years has ceded place to an obsessive writer whose invectives become legendary.  It’s also worth nothing that, perhaps due to the increased panoply of communication devices available to Thompson as the seventies go on, the bulk of the book takes place before 1975, and the lengthy “here’s what I’ve done lately” letter updates are increasingly replaced by letters regarding specific issues.

It all neatly sets up the much-awaited third tome of the series: The Mutineer has been promised for years by the Thompson Estate, and was pushed back from October 2009 to June 2010 as I was reading this second volume of letters.  Who knows what awaits in Thompson’s correspondence between 1977 and 2005?  We’ll find out in a year or so… assuming the book isn’t pushed back even further until then.

The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, Hunter S. Thompson

The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, Hunter S. Thompson

Ballantine Books, 1997 (1998 paperback re-issue), 683 pages, C$24.95 pb, ISBN 978-0-345-37796-8

My lofty intentions to read Hunter S. Thompson’s entire output in strictly chronological order of publication don’t make much sense considering The Proud Highway, a 1997 collection of letters written between 1955 and 1967. In a bid to solidify Thompson’s position as an American writer of some renown (and to please legions of fans accumulated since 1972’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Thompson authorized noted academic Douglas Brinkley to dig in his archives and assemble volumes of correspondence.

Thompson famously kept copies of nearly everything he wrote, even from a young age, and it’s those copies that fuel this collection of letters published before his first book (Hell’s Angels) hits the market. Those are the letters of a young man, a cocksure writer just waiting for greatness. Some juvenalia aside, the first letters collected here date from Thompson’s years in the Air Force, where he channels his renegade energies into sports writing, and then in engineering his own departure from the US military forces.

The rest of the book follows Thompson as he travels across America, and then from one continent to another. Thompson fans will track his travels from New York to San Juan to Big Sur to South America to San Francisco, only to end up, pages before the end of the book, in his home base of Woody Creek, Colorado.

This is as close as we’ll ever get to a Thompson autobiography, as we track his progress through quasi-weekly letters written from always-desperate circumstance. A vivid letter describes as Thompson manages to write in the cargo hold of a military flight heading back to his usual post; another hilariously portrays Thompson as battling insects while writing to his friend. One thing’s for sure: Thompson’s character was forged well before he hit his stride with Hell’s Angels: even his early letters show an aggressive and self-assured spirit: in fact, some of his letters to female acquaintances are uncomfortably pointed –especially for those who don’t know the context.

Still, life wasn’t easy for the young Thompson. Nearly every single letter mentions monetary difficulties of some sort, to the point where it becomes tiresome. Small wonder if Thompson-the-older-man would remain fixated on monetary issues, often to the detriment of his relationships.

Readers with specific interests may learn a few good details of trivia through those nearly seven hundred pages of letters. As a science-fiction fan, for instance, I was amused to find out that Thompson had sent a few stories to SF magazines at the beginning of the sixties –what an alternate universe that would have been if he had found success in that field! Similarly, the first editor to buy something from Thompson was Frank M. Robinson, an editor who would move west to San Francisco, become Harvey Milk’s speechwriter and eventually develop in a fine SF writer in his own right. Small world…

It almost goes without saying the The Proud Highway is aimed squarely at Thompson fans and scholars: Brinkley’s contextual input is slight, and the book’s best moments often illuminate other aspects of Thompson’s work. (The whole bizarre “American ambassador to Samoa” allusions in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 finds an explanation in a series of letters actually sent to Democratic Party honcho Larry O’Brien, for instance.) A lot of the material is either repetitive or desperately trivial, and casual readers may not want to wade through it all.

But for the Thompson fans, The Proud Highway is a look at the early years of a noteworthy writer. The 1967 date at which the book ends is significant, since it finds Thompson safely housed in Woody Creek Colorado, waiting for Hell’s Angels to hit bestseller lists and the subsequent events that would catapult him to national fame. But that story is covered in a second book of letters, aptly named Fear and Loathing in America

The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Cleverly & Bob Braudis

The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Cleverly & Bob Braudis

Harper Perennial, 2008, 272 pages, C$16.50 tp, ISBN 978-0-06-115928-2 Jun 24

Since Hunter S. Thompson’s death in 2005, there’s been a small cottage industry of books about the writer’s life. There’s certainly now enough related material about Thompson to rival books by Thompson: He led a wild life, and what he did to his friends has noteworthy enough to fill books of stories.

Which is exactly what we get here with Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis’ The Kitchen Readings. A book squarely aimed at existing Thompson fans, it doesn’t even try to provide an overview of the writer’s career: It just tells stories of what it was like to live near him. Both were friends of Thompson for decades: Cleverly is an Aspen artist and writer while Bob Braudis, as most obsessive Thompson fans know, has long been the sheriff for the county where Thompson lived.

The Kitchen Readings is their chance to tell all about being Thompson’s friends and neighbors. Most of Thompson’s proclivities are mentioned at least once: The drinking, the drug use, the shooting, the crazy driving, the peacocks… There’s little in here about Thompson’s literary output, but plenty about what it felt to live near him, and how unpredictable life could become when he was around.

On a certain level, it’s hilarious fun. Conceptually, a character like Thompson is the stuff legends are made: Apt to shoot guns at propane tanks for fun, drive with one hand on the wheel and another one around a bottle of Wild Turkey and scream at neighbors to blame them for the actions of his own escaped peacocks, Thompson’s legend is likely to be further enhanced by some of the tales within this book. The one that first sticks in mind is a crazy reverse-driving drunken race through Woody Creek’s snowy streets, culminating with property damage.

On the other hand, virtually the entire book bolsters my own feeling that Thompson was, essentially, unable to function in society and a real pain to be around. Beyond the surface mumbling and obvious drug use, Thompson is again and again shown as taking casual advantage of those who surround him, whether for money, favors or their indulgence after incidents that would have sent non-legends to either small-claims court or prison.

It’s to Cleverly and Braudis’ credit that their tone remains bemused and sympathetic throughout; It’s not hard to imagine that more casual acquaintances of Thompson may not have been so kind in their assessment. Still, from time to time, some less-honorable feelings seep through. In the chapter detailing Thompson’s disastrous adventures in Vietnam, it’s obvious that Thompson wasn’t as much of an action junkie as he pretended: his tolerance to real danger imposed by others was lower than anyone else would think. Elsewhere in the book, we get obvious hints that Thompson craved everyone’s attention and couldn’t tolerate being upstaged. Much of Thompson’s personality and social interactions stemmed from the idea that he liked to think of himself as being, in the most literal of sense, an outlaw.

Nonetheless (and if you haven’t figured out that Thompson was a pain to live with in other biographies, you haven’t paid attention), The Kitchen Readings is a worthwhile addition to the small library of posthumous testimonies about the Gonzo Doctor. It read a lot as if anecdotes in the Gonzo oral biography were fleshed out and tells us much about Thompson’s daily life in Woody Creek. It’s often a pleasure to read, and pays service, in its own way, to the memory and legend of Hunter S. Thompson. Fans will be pleased; many others, appalled.

The Great Shark Hunt, Hunter S. Thompson

The Great Shark Hunt, 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.

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S. Thompson

Grand Central, 1973 (2006 reprint), 481 pages, C$20.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-446-69822-1

Few things age faster that political reporting, especially when covering actual elections. Today’s hot scoop is tomorrow’s accepted wisdom and next week’s irrelevant history. It’s no surprise that political commentary has been embraced so fiercely by the instant-publishing world of blogging, when every moment counts and no opinion goes unpublished.

But it wasn’t always so, and a lifetime ago (my lifetime, at least) some periodicals had to be content with running election coverage once every two weeks. Few people would be crazy enough to accept such an assignment, but gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t an entirely sane man even when he was completely sober. When Thompson managed to convince the biweekly Rolling Stone magazine to cover the 1972 presidential elections, a unique match was struck between reporter and venue: Thompson would set up shop in the nation’s capital and cover the election from an avowed left-leaning perspective, without any regard to keeping bridges standing longer than it would take to make it to November 1972.

From the very first installment, in which Thompson describes a hellish wintertime drive from Colorado to Washington (speaking to some suspiciously convenient interlocutors along the way), it’s obvious that this isn’t routine objective political reporting. Thompson barged on that world with an outsider’s perspective, and no amount of official accreditation would alter this mindset. By the time he allows his press credentials to be used by a heckler to climb aboard disliked candidate Ed Muskie’s whistlestop tour, and later plants rumors of Muskie’s Ibogaine drug addiction, it’s obvious that Thompson is neither neutral nor interested in playing it safe. That largely explains why the result of this year-long electoral chronicle still remain compelling, more than 35 years after publication.

Much of the book has aged ungracefully: Despite Thompson’s intent to explain the mechanics of the presidential campaigning process to readers discovering politics for the first time, many of his off-hand references to contemporary figures and events are now mystifying: Readers may want to invest a few minutes into reading a more objective summary of the 1972 campaign before leaping into the more impressionistic, commentary-enhanced prose of Thompson’s chronicles. Some of the photos, most notably, could now use updated captions as the event surrounding them have completely faded away and the surrounding text doesn’t help.

Thompson isn’t nearly as interesting a reporter as he is a commentator, or a walking stereotype of his own burgeoning legend. Some of the most dramatic hard-news moments of the campaign (such as the attempted assassination of candidate George Wallace) are distantly described at a remove, whereas some of the book’s strongest passages occur as Thompson takes flights of fancy into the mystique of a hard-boozing reporter stuck between hellish working conditions and inflexible deadlines, or editorializes the results of the election —famously saying

“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves, finally just lay back and say it —that we are really just a nation of 220 million used-car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.” [P.389]

and proving that some things remain true even decades and a few more million Americans later.

But the insane pacing of a presidential campaign eventually takes its toll on the reporter. It’s not insignificant if more than half of the book focuses on the Democratic party primaries and if nearly two-thirds of the narrative occurs before the end of the two party conventions in Miami –the rest of the campaign is covered limply, and a good chunk of the book’s last third takes the form of post-election analysis. In the grand arc of Thompson’s career, Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 marks an intellectual crescendo of sorts; an enduring proof of what he could do when running in peak condition. But many biographers also describe how the campaign broke Thompson’s spirit, dogged him through tense personal moments, led him to harder drugs and made him a celebrity, all of which would make it impossible for him to go back to the type of work he was capable of doing between the release of Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which was finally published in book form during the campaign). More significantly, it’s also the book that cemented Thompson’s credentials as a celebrity political commentator —a role he would adopt until the end of his life.

But On the Campaign Trail ’72 hasn’t aged as well as Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in part because its ground-breaking quality gets increasingly less distinct as the years go by. For modern readers tempered in the fire of the 2004 and 2008 elections, Thompson’s prose reads a lot like pungent blog entries fueled by an unusual level of access. Thompson’s then-revolutionary subjective viewpoint is now a common quality of partisan blogging, and his “getting the story” gonzo-journalism shtick has now been co-opted by an increasing number of blogs set up by established mainstream reporters. In their own ways, bloggers are the true children of gonzo, reporting quickly and without any editorial filters to their readers and trusting them to see where reporting ends and subjective commentary begins. (No wonder if some of Thompson’s last writing was published on ESPN’s web site, in a style faithful both to his earlier gonzo work and to modern blog-writing.)

For those who have read a lot about Thompson and his writing process, it’s hard to read this collection of essays without sparing a thought for the Rolling Stone editors who had to wrestle Thompson’s undisciplined output into readable shape. The effort isn’t completely transparent: The columns still have a herky-jerky stream-of-madness quality that reads more like a stack of related items than a sustained narrative. The last third of the book is particularly scattered, as the “notes from the editor” multiply and narrative fiction is suspended in favor of interview-like questions-and answers. After lengthy missives earlier during the year, the entirety of the month of October fits in four airy pages of anguished prose about the inevitability of Nixon’s victory.

It’s hard to make out the true shape of the campaign at is occurs, but the final pages are made of savvy analysis about the campaign. For modern readers, the 1972 presidential campaign remains one of the most baffling one in American history: Even as the Watergate scandal was picking up steam, a war-torn America still awarded Richard Nixon one of the largest majority on record, only a few months before he resigned the presidency —and that’s not even mentioning Spiro Agnew’s straight journey from the vice-presidency to prison. Thompson’s instant analysis provides a few clues as to what happened, but it’s noteworthy that his undisguised loathing of failed vice-presidential democratic candidate Thomas Eagleton would dovetail with the 2007 revelations that Eagleton
was the undisclosed originator of the “Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid” catch-phrase that so damaged George McGovern during the campaign.

But the most remarkable thing about the book is that even nine presidential elections later, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 remains an intriguing read for American politics junkies. The good moments are still a joy to read, and the time-capsule aspect of the narrative has a certain interest. Needless to say, the book amply proves why it remains near the top of Thompson’s bibliography. It’s a just a shame that he was never able to reach that level of sustained political analysis ever again.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

Vintage, 1971 (1998 reprint), 204 pages, C$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-679-78589-2

I wasn’t planning on re-reading this book. My “Year of the Thompson” didn’t include another pit-stop in Las Vegas given that I had read this book in 1999 and I don’t usually re-read books unless I have good reasons. But the amount of Thompson biographical information I’ve been consuming lately naturally led back to another look at he book, a look that became even more urgent once I searched my archives and realized I had never formally reviewed the book at length. So here goes:

This is a book that comes with a lot of baggage. It’s Thompson’s best-known work, and arguably the single item that made him popular with casual readers. On a surface level, it’s fiction about two wild and crazy guys doing drugs (and I mean a lot of drugs) and behaving badly in Las Vegas at the beginning of the seventies. But the more you know about Thompson or about the sixties, the more the book becomes something else, starting out by acting crazy, but eventually finding that it all leads to a hollow place, an artificial recreation of a failed ideal, or an excuse to be unpleasant to others.

It does start out in an amusing fashion. I defy any fan of the book to resist the impulse to read the first few lines out loud, or linger a bit longer on the description of what’s in the protagonist’s suitcases. In the first two pages of the book, you can already find the unique mixture of craziness and world-weary knowledge (“There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge.” [P.2]) that fuels most of the novel.

But the influence of drugs and a thorough knowledge of depravity aren’t quite enough to characterize Thompson’s narration, which wouldn’t be complete without the certitude that the good times have ended, that civilization is in decline and that the nuclear-powered apocalypse may begin at any moment. This, I often feel, is what separates the good Thompson imitators from the superficial ones. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may describe irresponsibility, as its characters ignore their professional obligations, steal hotel soap in bulk and trash the rooms they’re given. But they’re doing so out of the conviction that none of it matters, that they will be dead by the time their credit ratings will be revised.

This sense of impending doom constantly floats above the novel, but it becomes more and more apparent as it goes on. War in Vietnam, Nixon, the atonal passage on the high water mark of the sixties… it all leads to feckless recklessness, until the terrible scene where a waitress is pushed too far and (unlike a previously-scared maid) cannot be brought back into the protagonist’s shared madness which, by this point, is starting to wear thin and veer in either paranoia or depression.

Particularly empathic readers will catch this nuance that eludes those who read the novel as a drug-addled jaunt through Vegas: As our characters get away with acting rudely, it’s not hard to feel poorly for those they leave behind in their wake. The characters may come to realize the consequences of their actions late in the book (“I’d abused every rule Vegas lived by –burning the locals, abusing the tourists, terrifying the help.”) [P.173], but by that time a number of readers will have rejected the idea that they are in any way admirable. (The movie adaptation is broadly faithful to this interpretation.)

Those who know Thompson will get more out of the book than those who discover Thompson through it. There are references to Hell’s Angels and San Francisco and to Colorado, but also a sense that it’s through fiction that Thompson could spread his wings at the widest, writing more casually about his true themes. The Rum Diary and other short fiction aside, it’s a shame that Thompson was never able to revisit the same place. But maybe it couldn’t be revisited.

For those who haven’t read Thompson before, well, it’s a trip of a different sort. It’s a very short novel (barely over 50,000 words), but it’s dense in events and hard-hitting narration. Take your time, savor one chapter every day, don’t see this as a guide to emulate, and everything will be fine. Which is more than we can say for Thompson or his alter-ego.

Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, William McKeen

Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, William McKeen

Norton, 2008, 428 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-393-06192-5

During my ongoing binge of Hunter S. Thompson material, I have come across a number of biographies, memoirs and related books about him. Not all of them are created equal, but I think I have found the definitive biography of the legendary writer: William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist.

Following Thompson’s suicide in 2005 and the time it usually takes to propose, write and publish a good non-fiction book, it’s no accident if 2007-2008 were the biggest years on record regarding Thompson memorabilia, even eclipsing the 1993 Carroll/Perry/Whitmer trilogy of biographies. The more recent crop has lot of qualities: Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s oral biography Gonzo was a compulsively readable grab-bag of Thompson stories and recollections, for instance. Unfortunately, it lacked direction and context by focusing on anecdotes and small slices of the writer’s life… and that’s where Outlaw Journalist steps into the gap, offering a complete look at Thompson’s life and works.

The first obvious difference is that McKeen approaches the subject from a professional perspective. McKeen, who teaches at the University of Florida, does his subject a favour by seeing him as a newsman: by measuring Thompson against the standards of his profession, McKeen is not only able to identify much of the sensationalism surrounding the legend, but also contextualize it against a coherent portrait of the man. No other Thompson biography, for instance, describe his Gonzo breakthrough article, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” in a chapter called “Epiphany”, linking it to Thompson’s well-documented desire to get away with whatever he wanted to do. (At the same time, McKeen makes his disdain for “Gonzo fans” clear, pointing out that Thompson was often the favourite writer of people who didn’t read.)

Thompson’s quasi-mythical substance abuse is studied in the same carefully-documented detail, McKeen going as far as suggesting that cocaine abuse had a role to play in Thompson’s silence following the publication of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. But there was a lot more to Thompson than drugs, and if Outlaw Journalist does something particularly well, it’s to give an even idea of the man behind the trappings of the legend. McKeen spends a lot of time, for instance, describing the less-exciting moments of his subject’s life: the fallow periods between projects, for instance, or the years of hand-to-mouth living between the greatest hits of his career. Thompson, we’re constantly told, was famous and yet not rich, living large on the generosity of his friends and the expense accounts of his employers.

McKeen is also meticulous in providing context for his subject’s life. Thompson’s stints for various publications are accompanied with a description of the place that the publications held at the time within American journalism. Sources, impeccably detailed either in-text or through over forty pages of assorted notes, range from Thompson texts, original interviews, past Thompson biographies or third-party sources. (A fifteen-page index completes the book) As of 2008, Outlaw Journalist is complete not only regarding the details of its subject’s life, but also about the stack of other works about him (It even mentions Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, something that eluded most of the press outside sf/comics fandom) McKeen, being neither a member of Thompson’s close circle of friends nor a past employer, is considerably more even-handed than many other biographers: He describes the tensions between Thompson and Rolling Stone magazine with a fairness that lacks from Gonzo, and doesn’t place undue importance on his own meetings with Thompson the way Paul Perry does in Fear and Loathing, for instance.

Best of all, Outlaw Journalist is a pure joy to read. Even the moments in-between Hunter’s high points are made interesting thanks to an engaging prose style and an eye for telling details. McKeen is always guiding his readers toward conclusions about his subject without highlight them. Unlike most other portraits of Hunter S. Thompson, this one feels fair, just detached enough, yet sympathetic and (make no mistake) highly entertaining at the same time.

In short, it’s the best biography of Hunter S. Thompson on the market so far, and it’s likely to remain so unless someone else spends a considerable amount of energy trying to go over the same territory. Given the myth-making that constantly surrounded Thompson, his scattered bibliography or the way the image of Thompson arguably became greater than the journalism himself, that’s a significant achievement.