When the going got weird
Two new books make a pilgrimage to the heart of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson By Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour. 512 pages, illustrated, hardcover. $28.99. Hachette Book Group (Little, Brown and Company). Order from Amazon
The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson By Anita Thompson. 112 pages, hardcover. $14.95. Fulcrum Publishing. Order from Amazon
Book reviews by Ray Young
The news of Hunter Thompson’s suicide in February of 2005 was a surprise, but not an unexpected one. As the inventor and chief practitioner of Gonzo Journalism—a feverishly subjective slant on reportage doused in drug and alcohol abuse, subversive humor and mischievous violence—he cultivated a reputation as a very loose and very loud canon. It’s there to see in his most famous books, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs
(1966), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
(1972) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72
(1973), works which revel in cynical honesty, caustic wit and drunk and disorderly philosophy.
Nearly two years after his passing, two biographies—and we use that word in the most liberal sense—arrive to theoretically sort out the details and attempt to explain Thompson and his methods. Gonzo
is a thick stack of interview snippets with family, friends and acquaintances, while The Gonzo Way
is Anita Thompson’s memoir of her late husband. Written from radically different perspectives, the books lend a rare humanity to an elusive, mythic individual who’s unfortunately teetered on the brink of caricature. Like Frank Zappa and Ken Russell, Thompson retooled his medium in a volatile era, attacking corporate corruption, commercial mediocrity and political dishonesty, freely assassinating all sacred cows like ducks in a barrel. Illustrator and collaborator Ralph Steadman calls it the “journalism of outrage.”
Frank Mankiewicz, manager for Sen. George McGovern’s bid for the Presidency in the1970s, famously described Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72
as “the most accurate and least factual account” of that heated race, but the witticism could extend to Thompson’s other work as well. As related by the multitude of talking heads in Gonzo
, his penchant for dramatic license stemmed from youthful dreams of grandeur. Regretting his lack of higher education, Thompson imagined a life as a novelist with Hemingway and Fitzgerald as role models, plans that were put on hold in order to pay the rent. He wrote for small newspapers and periodicals, salad days which Gonzo
touches with a feel for nostalgia.
Tightly stitched together by Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour, the book is at its best recounting the years before differences and duplicity drove a cardboard wedge between Thompson and Wenner, his editor at Rolling Stone
. (They’d continue to work, off and on, for decades.) The book is shaped as a patchwork ‘oral biography,’ a stream of sound bytes from a wide variety of people. It enables the editors to forego the arduous task of reconstructing an objective (and, by implication, honest) linear life story.
Selecting relevant and corroborating quotes from so many voices is tricky business, especially if the editor is working with an agenda. You can easily manipulate a reader by painting the subject in a fixed light. It’s probably no coincidence that Gonzo
brings up Thompson’s shortcomings near the time of his initial falling out with Wenner. In one such instance, Angelica Huston remembers Thompson smashing light bulbs in a restaurant, the man in the throes of childish, irrational behavior. However, that runs contrary to the control he’s alleged to have maintained throughout his life, straight or stoned. Thompson was an avid gambler—was he breaking glass on a bet? The editors don’t bother to find out.
Thompson’s first wife, Sandy, and their son Juan are among the personal survivors interviewed (Anita Thompson declined for reasons addressed below), and a host of writers, editors, actors and friends comment on his contradictory being, from quiet aspiring journalist to self-consumed cult icon; abusive husband and gun toting pacifist; the bottomless thirst for booze; the notorious drug abuse; his alleged womanizing (a topic cannily evaded by Thompson in his own writing); his Southern charm and charisma (the author hailed from Kentucky); his persuasive Gonzo writing style and the hypnotic effect it had on the culture. “Hunter imitators were all over the place,” recalls Rolling Stone
’s Tim Cahill, “but they lost sight of one of Hunter’s saving graces, which was that he was hilarious.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
is one of the funniest books of the last century. Wenner and company were there when the author, in his notorious ‘Raoul Duke’ persona—bedecked in aviator sunglasses, Hawaiian shirt, shorts, sneakers, cigarette holder and beer can—handed in the first draft, leaving them doubled over and crying from laughter. (These accounts in Gonzo
are a hoot.) Ostensibly ‘reporting’ on both a motorcycle race and a sheriff’s convention, whacked on a head full of hallucinogens, the book was a radical advance from Hell’s Angels
with Thompson critiquing the ‘American Dream’ gone to seed.
On the campaign trail a year later, his bi-weekly columns for Rolling Stone
—the text of the eventual book—are frantic translations of democracy and corruption in layman’s terms with Hunter as the main character. “Everything was urgent,” Steadman says of the accelerated writing and lifestyle. “Everything had to be done.
” Sandy recognizes the downside of the fame which altered his course: “He really didn’t want to become the gonzo person. He wanted to be read and thought of as a serious human being. And what happened was different.”
traces the big picture through an increasingly jaundiced eye, The Gonzo Way
zeroes in on the particulars Anita Thompson loved and admired about her husband. Considering his drug and alcohol intake, it’s interesting to find that she’s divided the chapters into numbered ‘lessons’ toward a positive outlook. A (subconscious?) nod to substance abuse recovery programs, The Gonzo Way
a kind of Step Book with the A.A. maxim (“To thine own self be true”) at its heart.
Her firm prose has the focus and sincerity of someone in mourning. “My good fortune in crossing paths with Hunter has opened many psychological doors for me and opened my eyes to the senses of humor and possibilities that lie in even the most twisted of scenarios,” she writes. “Analysis of his literary and journalistic legacies…is for another book. This volume is geared toward the other aspects of his legacy: you, Hunter’s readers, and particularly those of you who are interested in living up to your unique potential in individual style with the vigor and curiosity and courage to fight for your beliefs and for your neighbors well into old age.”
Less a biography than an extended eulogy, The Gonzo Way
is chiefly concerned with honoring his goodness and humor. Thirty-five years younger than Hunter, Anita began working as his assistant in 1999, moved into his Colorado home shortly after, and married him in 2003. Describing her husband as “a teenage girl trapped in the body of an elderly dope fiend,” Anita saw “the energy, the vitality, and the curiosity of a young girl. He also had a depth of wisdom at his disposal that came with his age and experience.” Associating Hunter to a young girl invites the kind of murky Borgesian analysis that neither biography, thankfully, appears willing to explore.
She offers brief comments from Tom Wolfe, Ed Bradley, George McGovern and Ralph Steadman—though nothing from Wenner. His absence from Anita’s ‘Honor Roll’ at the back of the slim volume confirms the rumors of bad blood between the two. (She voices her grievances on The Owl Farm Blog
.) Hunter taught her the working definitions of individuality, truth and freedom, the crux of The Gonzo Way
, the lessons she hopes will enrich his friends and fans. It’s a very noble and personal endeavor, tinged with the pain of loss and acceptance.
Copyright © 2007 by Ray Young