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09 January 2008

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson


The New Journalism

Hunter S. Thompson was representative of the era in which he lived. From his abuse of drugs to his love of guns, he reflects the excesses of American culture at the end of the twentieth century and into the next. It was a time of cultural ferment, well reflected in the character of Thompson from his caricature as Uncle Duke in Doonesbury to his Gonzo journalism.

Hunter S. Thompson aspired to become a novelist like the men he admired, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. His career took a different course. Instead, he became a journalist who, along with others dubbed “The New Journalists,” inserted himself into the center of his stories. Although his work is entirely absent from one anthology sitting on my shelf, Norman Sims, ed., The Literary Journalists (1984), his name often comes up early in discussions of the revolution in reporting. He is included in Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism (1973), and mentioned by Terry Gross in her Fresh Air conversation with Marc Weingarten, who discussed Thompson in The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight (2005). There should be no doubt that Thompson’s Gonzo journalism was significant in the reorientation of subjectivity and objectivity in public discourse.


A Man of Contradictions

Hunter Thompson’s writing in Hell’s Angels (1966) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) created a persona that he struggled to embody. Thompson often then seemed a caricature of himself. At least that is part of the image that appears in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, edited and arranged by Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour.

How much of Hunter was spontaneous and how much was arranged was always one of those questions that people would kick around. I found that he was like jazz. The piece was arranged. It was disciplined. But within that, he was a free instrument and he would go off.
Curtis Robinson in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, 358.

He adored his grandson, but tried to conceal these tender feelings from his friends, as when he covered the screen of his laptop when Doug Brinkley walked into the room because he was looking at pictures of the child (Gonzo, 371). We are told that he could charm any woman in the room, but those that loved him most learned to fear him.

I think that underneath all of that bravado and violence and anger and fear, though, was an understanding that he was not living the right life—that he was hurting people. He knew he could get what he wanted and that he could make people feel really, really scared and make them tremble.
Sandy Thompson in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, 433.


Conservative Perspectives

There are those that cannot find any merit in his writing. William F. Buckley Jr., “One can be sorry that Hunter Thompson died as he did, but not sorry, surely, that he stopped writing” (NRO). Others may regret their recollections:

I met Hunter in New Hampshire when he came to interview the old man [Nixon]. … Hunter and I were holed up in some hotel in Nashua on a snowy night and discovered that we were in possession of, I forget, either a gallon or a half-gallon of Wild Turkey. Now I had a lot of stamina in those days, and the two of us stayed up all night arguing fiercely about communism.
Pat Buchanan in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, 126-127.

Of course, Thompson’s vehement hatred of Richard Nixon should rile up conservatives, as might his fond memories of Pat Buchanan.

…it is hard to shed anything but crocodile tears over White House speechwriter Patrick Buchanan’s tragic analysis of the Nixon debacle. “It’s like Sisyphus,” he said, “We rolled the rock all the way up the mountain…and it rolled right back down on us.”
Well…shucks. It makes a man’s eyes damp, for sure. But I have a lot of confidence in Pat, and I suspect he won’t have much trouble finding other rocks to roll.
Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker,” in The Great Shark Hunt, 20-21.


Oral Biography

In Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Wenner and Seymour have arranged a collection of statements from more than one hundred individuals about their experiences with Hunter Thompson. The list of contributors reads as a Who’s Who of late twentieth century cultural politics: Presidential hopefuls Pat Buchanan and George McGovern, as well as President Jimmy Carter; actors Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, Anjelica Huston, Sean Penn; writers Norman Mailer, William Greider, William Kennedy, Tom Wolfe; performers Marilyn Manson and Jimmy Buffett; journalists Ed Bradley, Warren Hinckle, Richard Goodwin; and many others. Some that should be included were cut, however, as noted below. The result is a biography rich in contradictory analysis by people that saw different things even when they were in the same room together. These collective reflections present a complex picture of the life of a man.

The difference between Nixon and Clinton is the difference between the Truck and the Traveling Salesman. The Boss was our Satan, and Mr. Bill is our Willy Loman. …
He was weird, Bubba. He played in a league where Clinton will never be anything but a batboy. Nixon was a monster with insanely wrong convictions. Clinton is a humorless punk with bad habits. Nixon was so bad that he could get innocent people in to politics, but Clinton is bad in a way that will get all but the worst ones out.
Hunter S. Thompson, Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, 229.

No other writer has connected better than Thompson with my inherent distrust of everything Clinton. His caricature of Clinton as a batboy in the League of Evil is succinct and accurate.

I came late to Thompson’s writings for several reasons, not least because of my self-sheltered childhood as a conservative Republican. When Hell’s Angels was published I was absorbed in rereading Go Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman. When Hunter was on the campaign trail with Nixon and McGovern I followed events through Mad Magazine rather than Rolling Stone. Later, I turned to the output of university presses and literature by dead white males (and Thompson was still living). I’m not yet knowledgeable enough regarding Thompson’s oeuvre to offer the sort of definitive review of Gonzo that might supplement the likes of Marc Weingarten’s Los Angeles Times assessment, but it didn’t take Google long to reveal that Anita Thompson (Hunter’s widow) has issues with the book.

The reason peopled loved him is because he is one of the rare human beings who is essentially decent, with moments of rotten behavior.
Anita Thompson, Owl Farm Blog, 2 November 2007

My first clear memory of reading his work was an evening or two of ripping through Better Than Sex the year I finished graduate school, probably shortly after my wife unplugged the cable to our TV so I could no longer watch the trial of California v. O.J. Simpson. Later I read The Rum Diary, Hell’s Angels, and some articles published in Rolling Stone and elsewhere, republished in The Great Shark Hunt, which I bought the first week of September 2001. According to Anita Thompson, a lot of his later work merits attention, too. Perhaps her own The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Hunter S. Thompson should be read alongside Wenner and Seymore’s Gonzo.

Anita Thompson is not among those whose remembrances are included in Wenner and Seymour’s book; she told Wenner in a letter that he should burn the manuscript.

I wish I could appeal to your sense of decency and that you would burn this awful manuscript. It would be the right thing to do. I realize you're probably laughing at me to even suggest it. Oh Well.
Anita Thompson, Owl Farm Blog, 2 November 2007

The New York Daily News reports Wenner claiming that her dislike of the book stems from a sense of personal insult.

"She's attacking the book because she's not in it," Wenner told us. "We just took her out. We took her narrative thread out and had other people tell the story. Anita and I get along fine, but she has an exaggerated sense of who she was in terms of Hunter. She had another kind of role."
"Widow's fear & loathing over Hunter S. Thompson bio," 21 November 2007

Weingarten, for his part, believes that Jann Wenner made Hunter S. Thompson as much as Thompson made Wenner.

I think the editors are huge. Hayes, Felker, and Wenner gave these writers their heads to let them do their thing, but they also had a vision of how this kind of writing could enliven journalism, make it new. Conversely, writers like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese had tremendous respect for these editors—they wanted to do good work for them.
Weingarten, Mediabistro Q&A, 7 December 2005
He said much the same to Terry Gross when he was reflecting on the relationship between the New Journalism of Thompson, Wolfe, and Joan Didion and the newer New Journalism of the web.

I’m not so impressed with what I read on the web, particularly the blogs, which I think are too hastily written. I think journalists need editors to do the job right.
Weingarten to Terry Gross, Fresh Air, 27 February 2006


Aztlán

Whittier Boulevard is a hell of a long way from Hollywood, by any measure. There is no psychic connection at all. After a week in the bowels of East L.A I felt vaguely guilty about walking into the bar in the Beverly Hills Hotel and ordering a drink—as if I didn’t quite belong there, and the waiters all knew it.
Thompson, “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” in The Great Shark Hunt, 122-23.

I’ve read and taught several accounts of the stirrings towards revolution among Chicanos in the 1960s and 1970s, including Oscar Zeta Acosta’s fictional memoir, Revolt of the Cockroach People; Roberto Rodríguez, The X in La Raza; Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos; and F. Arturo Rosales, Chicano!: The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Thompson’s “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” published in Rolling Stone in 1971, and then reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt in 1979 still offers a sense of immediacy that with the passage of time dissipates in the others.

Oscar Z. Acosta died young, so there is no tribute to Hunter from him in Gonzo. However, Hunter’s tribute to Acosta is excerpted in the text, as are many other texts—just enough to whet the appetite:

What finally cracked the Brown Buffalo was the bridge he refused to build between the self-serving elegance of his instincts and the self-destructive carnival of his reality. He was a Baptist missionary at a leper colony in Panama before he was a lawyer … But whenever things got tense or when he had to work close to the bone, he was always a missionary. And that was the governing instinct that ruined him for anything else. He was a preacher in the courtroom, a preacher at the typewriter and a flat-out awesome preacher when he cranked his head full of acid.
Thompson, Rolling Stone 254; rpt. in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, 145.

I think there is no doubt that Hunter S. Thompson was at the top of his game in the late Sixties and early Seventies, but as his widow claims, his insights at the end of the millennium also merit attention.

We have seen Weird Times in this country before, but the year 2000 is beginning to look super weird. This time, there really is nobody flying the plane. ... We are living in dangerously weird times now. Smart people just shrug and admit they're dazed and confused.
The only ones left with any confidence at all are the New Dumb. It is the beginning of the end of our world as we knew it. Doom is the operative ethic.
Hunter S. Thompson, “Prepare for the Weirdness,” ESPN, 20 November 2000

From the days of “fear and loathing” to those of “dazed and confused” we have been living in interesting times, and that brings to mind an ancient Chinese curse.

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