Summer 2007 - Volume 10 Number 3
|Reviews||Gonzo Gone: A Meditation on the Death of an American
On 16 February 2005, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson wrote a short note under the title, “Football Season Is Over.”
This is what it said: “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax This won't hurt.”The End
On 20 February 2005, Hunter Thompson was found dead by his son Juan, daughter-in-law Jennifer and grandson Will. He had been talking with his wife Anita on the telephone when he put the receiver down and blew his brains out with a 45-caliber handgun. When his friend and sometime collaborator Ralph Steadman heard the news, he is reported to have expressed shock, but not surprise. It was all a question of when, not if. His first utterance was: “It’s about time!”
Of course, there is also news that Thompson was working on a project concerning the events of 11 September, 2001, and had expressed the fear that he would be “suicided.” These are slim pickings for conspiracy theorists, but just enough to whet some appetites.
At the “funeral,” Hunter Thompson’s ashes were stuffed into a cannon balanced on a tall tower that was shaped like a gonzo fist (four fingers, two thumbs). Steadman and Thompson had designed it some time before. His remains were blasted all over the Rocky Mountains. A number of celebrities attended. They included Thompson’s good friend Johnny Depp, US Senator John Kerry, former US Senator George McGovern, actors Sean Penn and Bill Murray, CBS correspondent Ed Bradley, and close to 300 others including, of course, Ralph Steadman. I wasn’t invited, but I am willing to bet that there was very little fear and a lot less loathing in evidence, at least of the sort that was imparted in Hunter Thompson’s most popular books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
Despite their temporary suppression in moments of piety and celebration, fear and loathing remain essential to understanding Hunter Thompson and, for those outside his elastic circle of friends, to coming to some assessment of the nature and importance of his life and work. (Some people call this “closure”.) The words describe the string to which Thompson applied his pearls of observation, participation and expression. They are the thread that connects the pattern of his life and art. Hunter Thompson, you see, was a great American patriot, with all the honors and all the shame appertaining thereto.
At a young age, he rebelled against authority (or at least the officials who sought to limit his enthusiasm as the Sports Editor of the Command Courier, the newspaper of the Elgin Air Force Base in Florida in 1956). His military service complete and his body more or less honorably discharged, Thompson lit out for the territories (or at least for Puerto Rico) with his career goals firmly in mind. His experiences there led to his first and (so far) only published novel, aptly entitled The Rum Diary (a second novel exists, but I am aware of no current plan for its publication). It was, as he wrote a friend, to be the “potential high water mark of 20th century literature.” If so, it made it just in time, because it was not published until 1998. A film, starring Johnny Depp, is in the works. From first notes to final cut, the project will have taken half a century.
For most of those five decades, Hunter Thompson would flash across the American night sky, lit up like an off-course comet backlighting the slow and grinding death of the visions and nightmares below. All that was to be decided was which level of reality the dying aspirations of the American Dreamers with whom he mixed or Thompson’s own suicidal death perch would self-immolate first. Since whole social systems almost invariably outlive the individuals who see through them, the fix was in from the get-go.The Meaning
I owe Hunter Thompson a debt of gratitude. So do a lot of people. He ran downfield blocking for those of us who might otherwise have become crazier than we did. The inventory of offences phony but nonetheless bloody wars, collective indifference to obvious agony, the medicalization of social interaction with the consequent popularity of Valium, Prozac and methylphenidate (Ritalin), systemic ecological degradation, “reality” TV and celebrity-gazing, cult-like faith in the invisible hand of the marketplace and the reduction of public goods to consumer choice can drive even the timid to acts of amazing insanity. Stupidity and avarice in the highest of elected offices and hanging around the local shopping malls are there for all to see, and sometimes reach a level at which they cannot be ignored, denied, or normalized in the symbolic rituals on the nightly news which thrive on the pretense and conceit that they are disinterested purveyors of information to an audience of otherwise somnolent and stupefied citizens. Such things can make you mad.
The ur-gonzo journalist, Hunter Thompson inserted himself into his stories, became their focal point and so provided an entrée into a world of politics and personal deception that made it easier for readers to take matters of cultural life and death seriously. The term “gonzo” was first applied to Thompson’s style of reportage a conscious negation of the myth of “objectivity” by Boston Globe reporter Bill Cardozo. He used it to label Thompson’s “break-out” journalistic triumph of 1970, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” which appeared in the June issue of the brilliant, iconoclastic and necessarily short-lived Scanlan’s magazine. In the lexicon of South Boston Irish, gonzo refers to the last one standing after a boozing marathon. Cardoza had just read Hunter’s piece. The term fit.
Thompson had done it before, of course. His critically acclaimed Hell’s Angels (1966) was a fine exhibition of what anthropologists would have called participant observation research; and other writings of the time would be similarly described. Norman Mailer practiced the craft in his splendid account of a peace demonstration outside the Pentagon in Washington, DC, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, The Novel as History (1968). Tom Wolfe dabbled in items such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). Abbie Hoffman performed in gonzo theatre and recorded the steps down to his own suicide (?) in Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1980). Richard Fariña blurred the lines between fact and fiction in both poetry and politics. Kinky Friedman took notes, wrote novels and ran for Governor of Texas. They all sought a truth that was strong enough not to overcome the obstruction of mere facts, now distorted in a postmodern Platonic cave of dancing television images. They saw that the very biggest lies were covered with the elegant draperies of smug impartiality and fake detachment. They sought rudely to tear them off.
The generation of the 1960s had begun to see through archetypal myth-dreams and the petty falsehoods and, when the crimes of racism, sexism, classism, corporatism and imperialism became too numbing for them to resist without self-destructive rage, they witnessed Hunter Thompson constructing a persona that would drive the “establishment” nuts. Fortified with whiskey and enough hallucinogens to stock a medium-sized pharmacy, Thompson frenetically sought out the life and death of the American dream. He chronicled “fear and loathing” and, of course, succumbed to it. High-fueled writers of passion and genius live lives of frantic desperation.
The volumes here under review record the history of a man who bundled contradictions into a frenzied package that was only internally coherent. He indulged in chaotic romps while maintaining a hurricane-circled calm. He hated to be ripped off, but was none too ethical in his own dealings. He was an icon of the spirited left who prized hand guns and was a dues-paying member of the National Rifle Association. He demanded good sense from others, but was the poster child for personal excess. His friend Kurt Vonnegut said that we should celebrate 20 August, the day of his blast off, as “Substance Abusers’ Pride Day.”The Timing
As a pre-boomer (someone born prior to April, 1946 nine fecund months after the vaporization of Nagasaki brought World War II to its putative end I am happy not to be a “baby-boomer,” and therefore to be technically exempt from tendentious accusations of narcissism, decadence, selling-out, hogging the good jobs and saddling future generations with the financial responsibility for keeping themselves alive in their dotage and thus threatening publicly funded health care and old age pension funds. At the same time, I am pleased to be part of the generation that gave the boomers their formative popular culture. The literary and musical icons of the 1960s were, after all, people who had been born between 1920 and 1945. John Barth, Robert Heinlein, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe are representative of those who crafted a generation with the written word; Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jim Morrison and other minstrels who slipped in just under the demographic wire supplied the musical foreground. Hunter Thompson (b. 1937) was a legitimate elder statesman. If Hunter Thompson were alive today, he’d be 70. Dean Moriarty would be 81. Bobby Kennedy would be 82. So it goes.The Journey
The Proud Highway contains over 650 pages of letters, a six-page “Foreword,” a ten-page editor’s note, a two-page author’s note, a chronological list of the letters and a fulsome index. It tells a fine tale. Coming out of Louisville, Kentucky in the late 1950s, Hunter Thompson was fired by the Middletown NY Daily News for being “too off-beat,” and thereupon applied for a job with the San Juan Star advertising himself as a lecturer on the meaning of the Beat Generation and an enemy of the Rotary Club. The editor rejected him in words of contemptuous abuse. Hunter showed up anyway, was still denied the job and “was kicked out of two homes … wrote some fiction, did some free-lance journalism … was abysmally broke, had been beaten by police and jailed for resisting arrest, was reduced to drinking rain water and being eaten by sand fleas, and, sensing also that he might have to spend a year in a Puerto Rican jail, … fled the Caribbean in a sailboat.” That summary, by the way, was written by the San Juan editor who became a life-long friend, but still didn’t hire him. He did, however, recognize Hunter’s gifts. He said that Hunter possessed “bizarre wit, mockery without end, redundant excess, supreme self-confidence, the narrative of the wounded meritorious ego, and the idiopathic anger of the righteous outlaw.” Not a bad collection of tools, if you can stand the pace.
The second sub-title of The Proud Highway is Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume One. Hearing his own semi-private voice for his first twelve years on the road is an excursion into both his youth and our own. There is outrage and tenderness, and mock paranoia (“I have certain knowledge that I’m going to be attacked by a herd of WILD BOAR”). He includes his letters to lost loves and intimates the existence of loves yet to be won. He walks confidently into the midst of the Hell’s Angels, wins their trust, writes sensitively and honestly about their “drunk-nazi, enemy-of-the-people act,” and is almost beaten to death for his troubles. The event launched his career.
Hunter Thompson may have remained a manic culture critic, but politics intervened. For those of us of a certain age, Chicago by which I mean, of course, the Democratic Party presidential nomination convention in 1968 changed basic political perspectives. To some Canadians who mainly watched Dan Rather being beaten up on Walter Cronkite’s evening news, it was time to distance themselves from the USA, either vicariously through temporary adulation of their homegrown hero, Pierre Trudeau, or in a recommitment to Canadian nationalism, most notably by people on the political left.
The first was a stylistic rejection of Richard Nixon; the second was a failed attempt to revitalize a substantive alternative to Richard Nixon, while staying put on the North American continent. To some Americans, it was the end of the 1960s, the end of opportunity and the end of hope. Martin Luther King had been killed. Bobby Kennedy had been killed. Lyndon B. Johnson had sacrificed the “Great Society” to the gods and the profits of war. Richard M. Nixon had been elevated to the heights of power, from which he could look down on the Watergate Hotel. For many Americans, the turning point came as the tear gas rolled out over Lincoln Park. Horrified at their rioting police force, they fled from politics.
Hunter Thompson, of course, did the opposite. Fear and Loathing in America carries the story forward, out of Chicago and into Woody Creek, Colorado. There Hunter had settled down in what passes for a rustic setting near the ski resort of Aspen. It was not a retreat, but a centred piece of real estate from which he would become engaged in local affairs (he was almost elected Sheriff on the “Freak Power” ticket), and from which he would race across America like a wild tornado-watcher pursuing the imploding American Dream. Unlike the current American president, he would also venture beyond American borders and travel to Zaire to cover the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. He would miss the fight, but buy some elephant tusks and illegally import them to America. He would visit Vietnam. His messages from Saigon, Hong Kong and Vientiane come complete with the lyrics of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Along the way, his adventures are reconstructed in sporadic detail, leavened with humour and an occasional exaggeration. He also reproduces special pleadings to publishers such as Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone and clandestine communications with Democratic Party candidates from George McGovern to Jimmy Carter. No longer impoverished (all the time), we follow him onto a Lear Jet. We notice when he becomes an informal advisor to Jimmy Carter. Throughout, however, he stands lonely before an avalanche of betrayal.
Whether marlin fishing in Mexico, musing about the great god Lono on the Big Island of Hawai’i, or desperately waiting for the end of Nixon, he finds time to have conversations, and to write about the betrayals, sometimes of him personally but more often of his country. Among Nixon’s men, it becomes clear that he enjoys the company of Pat Buchanan: “We disagree so violently on almost everything that it’s a real pleasure to drink with him,” he tells the erudite theologian-political commentator Garry Wills. As always, though he would never use the phrase, his quest is for something akin to what Norman Mailer might label existential authenticity.
Songs of the Doomed does not move sequentially on from Fear and Loathing in America’s resting place of 1976. It returns to the beginning as if to find a way to start again, and to make the path clearer for inattentive readers. Each decade from the 1950s to the 1990s is allotted a sensible number of pages usually about sixty. For those uninterested in passionate love letters and passionate hate letters, this volume is probably the best to make Hunter Thompson’s personal acquaintance. It is arguably the funniest of the lot.
In it we learn how dumbstruck Hunter was at the success of his Kentucky Derby article. This was how it was written: “I thought I was finished as a writer. I remember lying in a tub in New York in some hotel where Hinckle had locked me up with nothing but a wide-open room service account and four quarts of Johnny Walker Scotch. I was there for days. At first, I was typing, then I was just ripping pages out of my notebook, because I’d worn myself down to the point where I couldn’t even think, much less write. The magazine was holding the presses … I thought it was a disaster.” When the ecstatic phone calls and rapturous letters starting rolling in, he identified the key to the “whole new style of journalism” that he had been credited with inventing. This was it: “accident and desperation.”
The recapitulation has another purpose beyond supplying a “condensed” version of the first two books. It also moves forward. After a pause to collect our thoughts in the context of some delightful contributions to the San Francisco Examiner, Hunter Thompson lays out in detail (complete with reproductions of official documents), his arrest and trial on eight felony and a couple of “bizarre misdemeanor” charges. The matter ought not to be taken lightly. He was charged with assault, sexual assault, unlawful possession of such controlled substances as Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, cocaine, Diazepam, marijuana, and the unlawful possession, use, and removal of explosives and incendiary devices. Taken together and upon conviction, the expected sentence would have been about sixteen years in prison. The case was, according to Thompson, a matter of selective and malicious prosecution. It turned out to be an important case in terms of the U. S. Constitution’s 4th Amendment rights. It resulted in Thompson filing a $22 million lawsuit for “Malicious Prosecution, Gross Negligence and Criminal Malfeasance with Harmful Intent.” As the book ends, the District Attorney is being investigated by a Special Prosecutor for Conspiracy to Commit Perjury. Hunter Thompson proclaims: “They are doomed.” But the triumphalism that should have been in evidence is not. He sounds hollow and sad.
For decades, Hunter Thompson was said to be at work on a more substantial volume to be entitled The Death of the American Dream. It was never completed. The closest thing we have may be Kingdom of Fear. Retracing once more some of the steps that had previously been taken, but never in the same way, he grounds his escapades and exploits in a more serious and studied narrative that seems more concerned with his surroundings than with his self.
Those inclined to moderation in thought, word and deed will not find this work any less disturbing than the others. As always, of course, no prissy school teacher who recoils in horror from the use and abuse of the vulgar tongue will get comfortably past the third page when he recalls getting busted by the FBI for destroying a US Mail Box. The effete will more likely flinch at his rendering of his wife’s description of his character: “I am a teenage girl trapped in the body of a sixty-five year old career criminal who has already died sixteen times” or at the back-flap which shows full-dorsal nudity with the hunter Thompson, clad only in a (mainly) white hat, aiming a shotgun at unseen birds at Woody Creek.
Hunter Thompson had come to some fairly inflexible conclusions after reflecting on his encounters with America. “I like this book,” he says, “and I especially like the title, which pretty well sums up the foul nature of life in the U.S.A. in these first few bloody years of the post-American century. Only a fool or a whore would call it anything else.”
He says that the United States is becoming a “fascist police state.” How accurate can hyperbole be?
On 12 September, 2001, he writes that this (the anticipated “war on terror”) is “going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed.” He speaks presciently of the “goofy child-president” who knows only that “his father started the war a long time ago, and that he … has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. He will declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on everybody, no matter where they live or why.” Hunter Thompson returns to Lincoln Park. “What I learned, in Chicago, was that the police arm of the United States government was capable of hiring vengeful thugs to break the very rules we all thought we were operating under. … I went there as a journalist; my candidate had been murdered in Los Angeles two months earlierbut I left Chicago in a state of hysterical angst …” He translated that into political energy, but that, too, broke down.
So, he left us with Hey Rube. It completes the circle that began at the Elgin Air Force Base. The book begins, in fact, with a reproduction of his “Personnel Report.” It praises his “outstanding talent in writing,” but laments articles that criticized Arthur Godfrey and Ted Williams. It places him under censorship and urges that he be taken off the sports desk and “assigned to other duties,” while being “earnestly considered for the early release program.” It is now fifty years later, and Hunter Thompson’s last collection contains his weekly columns from espn.com (the US sports site). His ESPN editor said that Hunter’s main ambition was to become the “Prime Minister of Fun”; the times were not right.
As a sports writer and a citizen, he compared football to war, two years after the destruction of the World Trade Center and several months after the successful invasion and failed occupation of Iraq: “In war you do 200 push-ups a day, and in pro football you do about 50. In war you carry a nine-pound full-auto assault rifle at all times, and in football you carry a pointed leather ball. They are both violent and cruel and utterly unforgiving, and they both require public brutality by people wearing elaborate uniforms. I have tried them both for long periods of time, and I frankly see no basic similarity at all, beyond the desire to hurt people.”The Eulogy
As aspirant Prime Minister of Fun, Hunter Thompson ran out of funny stories. That is why his friend and long-time illustrator Ralph Steadman called his memoir about Hunter, Joke’s Over. Steadman was not Thompson’s choice to accompany him to the Kentucky Derby in 1970. He had wanted Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Denver Post but Oliphant was busy, so Hunter got stuck with the Welshman instead. They, and we, were lucky. Thompson praised Steadman in 1974 with these words: “he has a really fine, raw sense of horror. By way of exaggeration and selective grotesquery. His view of reality is not entirely normal. Ralph sees through the glass very darkly.” No one could match Hunter’s sardonic, sometimes terrifying vision with more acuity. His reflections on his friend, however, are not always friendly.
Kurt Vonnegut described the Thompson-Steadman partnership as a love-hate relationship that was good for both of them. Steadman’s drawings were at their best when illustrating Thompson’s prose; Thompson’s prose became more entertaining and theatrical and exciting when illustrated by Steadman.
Steadman appreciated Thompson’s gift and its importance. “When you were searching for words to express your anger and frustration in a world gone wrong,” Steadman writes, “Hunter expressed them and filled others with the answers to their needs.” He is also courageous enough to show Thompson at his worst. Like many comic actors and “self-confidence”-men, Hunter Thompson needed to display his superiority with a “litany of mean humour [and] just the right amount of mockery” to avoid giving approval no matter how well deserved. The result was that, even in his tribute, Steadman says: “I haven’t finished with him just yet. I need to mock him and beat on him like a lost cockerel, just like he mocked me.”
But, Steadman gets over it, sort of. In the penultimate segment of Joke’s Over, Ralph Steadman tells us truly that Hunter Thompson “fought … against injustice, calumny, greed and sloppiness. He was and is the enemy of stupidity, of brutality against the weak and silly. He stands as the antidote to the New Dumb.” Then, he ends it: “Hunter S. Thompson was just another tax evader who got lucky.”
Like Norman Mailer and other larger than ordinary life characters with the bravado and the skill to negotiate living outside the rules, Hunter Thompson’s excellent eccentricities and annoying neuroses would have made it hard for quiet, patient fools like me to like him but, then again, we would never have been allowed the chance. We move too slowly. Our wits are not as quick.
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was, according to Kurt Vonnegut, “the most creatively crazy and vulnerable of the New Journalists. His ideas are brilliant and honorable and valuable … the literary equivalent of Cubism: all rules are broken.”
The key word is vulnerable.
Living outside the rules, he was free to speak our minds, and to scream our thoughts in the kind of loud, vulgar and absolutely appropriate language that would embarrass us were we to utter his finely chosen epithets in a non-stop stream of semi-consciousness, and in public. He did so, in order that we could carry on and, in the end, he took a bullet for the team.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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