Mar 1, 1980
Fear and Loathing in Retrospect
“Thompson’s art has always been guided by the principle that the story of getting the story is always more important than the story itself.”
The Great Shark Hunt, by Hunter S. Thompson, Summit Books, Simon and Schuster, 602 pp., $14.95.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON gave birth to gonzo journalism in 1970, but the father was a deadline (the greatest muse). Scanlan’s Monthly had dispatched Thompson and British illustrator Ralph Steadman to cover the Kentucky Derby. In prototypical gonzo fashion the race itself only merited a short one-paragraph description, which it eventually got. The real story lay elsewhere—over 50,000 ravers lined the infield of the track, enjoying acute alcohol toxicity—white-linen suited members of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels busied themselves by barfing into urinals—Steadman drew hideous portraits of bystanders and then made gifts of them to the subjects, a practice Thompson was quick to discourage before somebody took the gift as a “brutal, bilious insult” and horsewhipped Steadman—and Thompson pumped mace into the governor’s box. What a story!
But Thompson couldn’t write. The entire issue of Scanlan’s was set in type and ready to roll, waiting for Thompson’s story, the cover story. As Thompson later recounted, “… I was having at the time what felt to me like a terminal writer’s block, whatever the hell that means.” He had himself locked up in a sensory deprivation chamber (a New York hotel suite), but nothing more came of his isolation than a couple of pages. “They were sending copy boys and copy girls and people down every hour to see what I had done, and the pressure began to silently build like a dog whistle kind of scream … You couldn’t hear it but it was everywhere … Finally I just began to tear the pages out of my notebooks since I write constantly in the notebooks and draw things, and they were legible. But they were hard to fit in the telecopier. We began to send just torn pages.”
Thompson sat back and waited for his editor’s wrath to upchuck the whole mess right back out of the telecopier. No such wrath came. Thompson ventured a cautious call to his editor. “Oh yeah. It’s wonderful stuff… wonderful,” the editor said. Fie was keen for more of the same. Like any good writer Thompson took his editor’s advice and fed the rest of his notebook to the insatiable telecopier. Editor’s ink and Steadman’s own pen and ink resulted in “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” a gonzo tribute to our “whole doomed atavistic culture.”
Gonzo. It ain’t in Webster’s. The gonzo method of paranoia, exaggeration, black humor, fantasy, vengeance, violence, large-bore revolvers, squealing tires, and a devotion to twisting reality to suit his purposes, be it with an IBM Selectric or ingested chemicals, has served Thompson well. Out of gonzo Thompson has fashioned a literary style which rings as unique a note as Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled style or Herman Melville’s metaphysical style. As with Hammett and Melville, Thompson’s success has spawned imitators, but none of them write with the sheer imagination of the originator. Thompson writes like a runaway lawnmower. Gas him up on Wild Turkey, mescaline, and speed. Nudge him in a general editorial direction. Like a renegade Toro he will down hedges, prematurely harvest the garden, and devour the neighbor’s poodle, slapping guts and bone splinters into the air.
Sports Illustrated once gave such an editorial nudge, requesting a 250-word caption for a Las Vegas motorcycle race. In Los Angeles Thompson and his “300-pound Samoan attorney” ladened a Chevy Impala convertible with ether, Budweiser, LSD, heroin, weed, cocaine, and adrenochrome extract from live human adrenal glands, and aimed it at Las Vegas (“what Berlin would have looked like if the Nazis had won”). The caption never got written—Thompson and his attorney were too busy fending off attacks by winged lizards in the Mohave desert, battling drug-induced psychosis, glad-handing narcotics officers at the national narcs convention, and evading bills and arrest. That adventure, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” came out of the gonzo funnel as a demented Huck and Tom story—dark, dangerous, sardonic.
The American Political Experience came next, with Thompson warming up for the big leagues by running for Sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, on the Freak Power ticket whose platform promised to sod all the streets, change the name of the town to “Fat City” (to “prevent greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name ‘Aspen’ ”), erect a bastinado platform and a set of stocks to punish dishonest dope dealers, and use wild wolverines to help keep the peace. Landslide defeat whetted Thompson’s appetite for the Big Cakewalk, the 1972 presidential campaign. He tore through the campaign like a golf cart racing through hell, divorcing himself from the Pack Journalists, and throwing-in with the “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” McGovern campaign. His biweekly reports for Rolling Stone respected none of the off-the-record courtesies professional journalists must maintain to keep their sources flowing. Thompson purposely burned bridges behind him—he only intended to take this ride once.
Hunter S. Thompson
In the course of the campaign Thompson rendered such valuable public services as describing Hubert H. Humphrey as “a gutless old ward-healer who should be packed into a bottle and sent out with the Japanese Current.” He also lent his press ticket to a spasmodic drunk who boarded the Muskie Florida campaign train and unhinged Big Ed. Untainted by modesty, Thompson bragged of being the first to publicly compare Richard Nixon to Adolf Hitler. And the limits of libel law were tested as Thompson alleged that he and John Chancellor dropped acid together and that Walter Cronkite dealt in the white slavery market. Between gonzo outbursts like this Thompson got closer to the mechanics of the nut-busting, 18-month long, cross-continent, idiot’s marathon of presidential campaigning than anyone, dispensing enough hard reportage to earn the praise, envy, and hatred of most of the press corps. The campaign was a big stakes game for Thompson as he won all but two of the fifty bets he made between February and November, betting against McGovern in New Hampshire and for him on November 7. Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72 made it to hardcover, and with its publication Thompson became the mescaline Teddy White, cranking out history which was not always accurate but was always true.
The Watergate Summer blessed Thompson with the material to finish the Campaign Trail ’72 story. Gonzo ain’t gonzo without revenge, and Richard Nixon (“a Cheapjack Punk,” “a congenital thug,” “a fixer,” “a Lust-Maddened Werewolf’) gave Thompson that opportunity. He had been kicking Nixon long before he was down (“a walking embarrassment to the human race”), and now that Dick was down, “lashing around in bad trouble,” Thompson took stiletto-boot shots at the “frightened, unprincipled little shyster.” The Doctor of Gonzo wrote,
Six months ago Richard Nixon was Zeus himself, calling firebombs and shitrains down on friend and foe alike—the most powerful man in the world, for a while—but all that is gone now and nothing he can do will ever bring a hint of it back. Richard Nixon’s seventh crisis will be his last. He will go down with Harding and Grant as one of America’s classically rotten presidents.
Which is exactly what he deserves—
“Fear and Loathing at the Watergate: Mr. Nixon Has Cashed His Check.” More like bounced his last check, but the distinction is a fine one. Ironically, the decline of Richard Nixon was paralleled by the decline of Hunter S. Thompson. After single-handedly hounding a President out of the White House, what subject could possibly be worth Thompson’s talents? A goddamn fishing contest in Mexico (“The Great Shark Hunt”)? An obituary for his 300-pound Samoan attorney (“The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat”)? The endorsement of a grinning-airhead Trilateral Commission delivery-boy for the presidency (“Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith”)? Noooooooooo! Garry Trudeau got the wise idea first, transforming Hunter S. Thompson into the fictitious Uncle Duke and sending him off to American Samoa as Governor, China as Ambassador, and Iran as bag-man. Thompson got the wise idea second. Weary or perhaps bored with living fantasies, he has turned Hollywood screenwriter and a movie starring Bill Murray as a Thompsonesque journalist is due for 1980 release. Thompson is cashing the checks now, and they are signed by Universal Pictures. Pay me to fantasize, Thompson must be thinking, and let some other pitiful geek live the twisted things. Here’s hoping the checks Thompson is cashing don’t bounce on his readers.
So Simon and Schuster has published the Hunter S. Thompson Omnibus, His Greatest Hits, whatever you want to call it. They call it The Great Shark Hunt and have seen fit to put it in binding that would shame even the Book-of-the-Month Club. There is just one Ralph Steadman drawing and that’s on the dustjacket. Not a single Steadman drawing from the original magazine publications is included—which is like publishing the definitiveAlice in Wonderland without the John Tenniel drawings.
But what the hell. There is plenty of Thompson’s pregonzo apprentice work from his National Observer days, stuff that proves that he can write traditional journalism with either end of the pyramid turned up. Thompson’s art has always been guided by the principle that the story of getting the story is always more important than the story itself. Not one of the 50-odd entries betrays that principle.
For Thompson enthusiasts The Great Shark Hunt will be a true feeding frenzy. But let the non-initiated be forewarned: Hunter S. Thompson considers Joseph Conrad as one of literary history’s great humorists. It is the darkness of the soul, the evil joy of the Hell’s Angels, the mad dog ethics of politics and pro football, and consciousness stretched like taffy by drugs, pain, and death that Thompson covers. It’s a tough beat.
Jack Shafer writes frequently for LR.