Getting to the Guy Behind the Gonzo

orb washburn hunter s thomp Getting to the Guy Behind the GonzoOUTLAW JOURNALIST: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON
By William McKeen
W. W. Norton, 448 pages, $27.95

More than any other American writer in recent memory, Hunter S. Thompson demonstrated that, yes, sometimes the road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom—just before it dead-ends at the cul-de-sac of regret. After a stunning, swift period of brilliance, his style, as the old joke goes, became substance abuse; it was seductive, it was fun, and for the type of person who confuses a drinking problem with literary talent, it was intoxicating. But as even the most casual observer knows, the persona soon eclipsed the writing.

Typically, Alex Gibney’s thoughtful new documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, has difficulty prying the mask from the face and evaluating Thompson the writer. The film depicts him as a charismatic rogue with political opinions, cocaine and a typewriter. Worse, the recent rash of Thompson biographies were scribbled into existence by people who wanted to be him, or at least be very much like him. Victims of the fallacy of imitative form, these writers adopted personas—à la Raoul Duke, Thompson’s alter ego—or studded the biographies with their own drug-fueled exploits.

Thankfully, William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist avoids most of these pratfalls. Written with an eye toward coherence and comprehensiveness, His sober, admiring book provides the best record to date of Thompson’s life: It presents a louche moralist, an opponent of convention, an enemy of good sense; and it tallies the cost of the bargain he made with corrosive fame.

By deemphasizing the legendary decadence, Mr. McKeen provides space for an essential, hitherto neglected aspect of Thompson’s career: his conflicted, combative relationship with the craft of journalism. As someone who repeatedly compares Thompson’s talent and decadence to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, Mr. McKeen obviously thinks he deserves another look.

Thompson’s literary reputation rests primarily on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), books that shattered convention with their propulsive immediacy, even by the standards of New Journalism. "Fear and Loathing" became the Thompson mantra, applied when he ramped up, as he did throughout his career, to conduct an inquest into the American Dream, the death of which he considered the direct effect of the nation’s betrayal of the ’60s. Vivid with savage descriptions of the nation’s political hypocrites and "atavistic throwbacks," these books were Thompson’s apoplectic response. With their fractured chronologies that mimic the fluctuations in perception ushered in by rage and Thompson’s daily diet of cocaine, rum or ether, the books sit easily with both failed optimists and born cynics.

As Mr. McKeen demonstrates, Thompson’s manic style was born of expediency, not strategy: Against a deadline, or too stoned to write, he often faxed in random sections of notebooks, forcing editors to stitch together Frankenstein texts. This pattern began early in his career, with "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved." The Derby piece is quite amazing, and it introduces the "mature" Thompson, if that word applies, including his centrality to the narrative, his dipsomania, his hallucinogens and his sidekick (in this case the artist Ralph Steadman). It was also the first time Thompson choked.

Under deadline pressure for the Derby piece, Thompson abandoned coherent narrative and began wildly filing pages of "half-formed thoughts" and "semilucid notes" from his notebook. "When I first sent one down with the copy boy," Mr. McKeen quotes Thompson as saying, "I thought the phone was going to ring any minute with some torrent of abuse. I was full of grief and shame." The abuse never came, and the piece, jagged edges and visible seams, was published to small yet significant acclaim.

Thompson’s admission of shame is revealing. As Outlaw Journalist explains in strong sections about Thompson’s youth in Louisville, Ky., from his first byline—at age 11, when he tore himself away from vandalism long enough to write a sports story for another precocious fourth-grader’s community newspaper, the Southern Star—he viewed writing as his calling. It’s a cliché of a different stripe for Thompson, but when he writes to William Faulkner about the writer’s duty, you can tell that he’s in earnest. (Compare Thompson’s later epistolary warning to Tom Wolfe: The "filthy white suit will become a flaming shroud!")

By the time he felt himself floundering with the Derby piece, Thompson had spent the better part of a decade writing about sports for the Air Force and for third-rate papers in New York and Puerto Rico, where he also wrote The Rum Diary (a novel deemed at the time unpublishable), and he’d sold his blood in San Francisco to support his wife and child. And now, after publishing his first book, the still-impressive Hell’s Angels (1966), he was toiling as a freelancer, on the verge of losing it all. It’s poignant to see such a celebrated maverick fight for years only to suffer typical writerly fears on the eve of his aesthetic breakthrough. But obviously Thompson’s deadline crack-up paid off; for the rest of his career, including the two Fear and Loathing books, he had a model.

So yes, Thompson in Gonzo mode dramatized a fractious moment in American history, but that was part intuition, part drunkenness, part accident.

That’s O.K., though: Authenticity is accidental. Thompson’s problem post-Fear and Loathing was his myopic understanding of the "authentic" Thompson. For most fans, Thompson had more to do with recklessness off the page than with the works’ satire. Thompson, too, bought that ticket, took that ride. His hunger became mere appetite; his talent, equal parts obsession and improvisation until then, lost balance and failed. In a characteristic passage, Mr. McKeen writes, "[Thompson] admitted that he hadn’t done a second draft of anything since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. If readers lapped up whatever he wrote, no matter how many breakdowns and chronological shifts he threw their way, why try for polish?"

It’s well known that Thompson’s last years were riven by bitterness, but here, too, Mr. McKeen sheds new light. Like many young journalists, he thought of himself as a novelist paying the bills with journalism, and this belief remained with him until way too late. How many people have heard of, let alone read, a Thompson novel other than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—which he himself referred to as a "failed experiment in Gonzo journalism"? (Watching the Johnny Depp movie doesn’t count.)

 

LIKE ITS SUBJECT, Outlaw Journalist has flaws: It’s light on Thompson’s emotional and physical brutality, and many passages lack depth. And where’s the fun? After all, the Thompson legend isn’t rumor-based. This biography should therefore be read alongside one of the Fear and Loathing books, or Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, a Jann Wenner-edited oral history, published soon after Thompson’s suicide in 2005.

William McKeen expertly demonstrates that Thompson failed to become a writer of significance. He became "Hunter S. Thompson." That was both a brilliant thing to be and a crushing disappointment.

Michael Washburn is the associate director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Raised in Louisville, he’s a Kentucky Colonel, just like Hunter S. Thompson. He can be reached at books@observer.com.