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.