A few months after Richard Nixon was reelected in 1972, Hunter S. Thompson sat in a bar with Paul Scanlon, his editor at Rolling Stone. “Hunter looked like hell and was clearly not in great spirits,” Scanlon writes in the introduction to this lively new anthology. Scanlon gently wondered aloud whether it might be wise for Thompson to cut back a bit on his heroic consumption of drugs and booze. The writer’s reply, Scanlon says, was this: “He gave me a look; nothing nasty, just a look. He extracted a tab of Mr. Natural blotter acid from [his] pocket, stared me in the eye, and swallowed it. I got the message.”
Thompson was 35, and about to publish the last of his three great books. After Nixon’s resignation the following year, Thompson would deliver only five more first-rate magazine articles (in the view of Scanlon, whose grading is generous) before he rejoined his body with his talent by shooting himself in 2005. If he had been buried under a tombstone (instead of having his ashes fired out of a cannon in the presence of celebrities), it might have been inscribed with these words, which he wrote in a 1978 profile of Muhammad Ali that was mostly about Thompson’s practical jokes and misadventures: “Some people write their novels and others roll high enough to live them, and some fools try to do both.”
The new volume, which contains some of the crazed, misshapen glories of imagination that turned into the ecstatically weird, rampantly funny books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, is in part a chronicle of exhaustion — of the writer, of the reader. Read at a single go — in a rush, as it were — the tics and tricks become loudly repetitive. For the most part, Thompson wasn’t a Path-Breaking Journalist or a New Journalist or a Gonzo Journalist, because he wasn’t a journalist. Journalists talk to people and write down what they say. Journalists add to the global stock of knowledge. Pursuant to these aims, journalists very often leave the hotel. Thompson provides a running transcript of an ongoing conversation with himself.
The lengthy Ali piece, written just after the Champ’s embarrassing defeat by the little-heralded Leon Spinks, relates almost nothing of what its highly charismatic and unusually quotable subject said until the end (and even then, sticks to routine sports-page chatter about Ali’s weight and conditioning). Thompson was on chummy terms with George McGovern, had (or claimed to have had) a long one-on-one with Nixon about football, and spoke to then–presidential candidate Jimmy Carter for some six hours — yet shares little of what these figures said. (Thompson said he lost the tapes of his Carter interviews.) Thompson was ungenerous with the spotlight.
Thompson went to Vietnam and was stationed in Saigon when the North Vietnamese overran the city. He wrote nothing except (to borrow Thompson’s idiom) a couple of thousand words of rancid gibberish about the feeling inside his hotel. Sent to Zaire in 1974 to report on the Ali–Foreman fight, he delivered only silence. He whiffed on the invasion of Grenada, too. Included amusingly in this volume are letters to and from Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, who, in an excited March 1973 missive, suggests half a dozen story assignments, from the L.A. mayoral race to professional wrestling. At the bottom of the page arrives the punchline: “Editor’s note: None of these assignments came to fruition.”
Nor was Thompson a pundit or social critic; he made no attempt to persuade and very little to weigh or analyze. “Contributing some of the clearest, most bracing and fearless analysis of the possibilities and failures of American democracy in the past century” (in the words of the Chicago Tribune about him) is exactly what he did not do, and we can all be grateful that Thompson wasn’t Ralph Nader. What conservative would want to read that?
Thompson’s fans include Pat Buchanan (who, in a Thompson piece on the fall of Nixon, has a few beers with Thompson and tells him Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail was “one of the funniest things I’ve ever read”), Tom Wolfe (who called Thompson “the great comic writer of the 20th century”), and P. J. O’Rourke (who said he thought Wolfe “could’ve made a better case, at least in bits and pieces, that Hunter was the best writer of the late 20th century”).
If Thompson was ideologically of the McGovernite Left, he was temperamentally pure Rooster Cogburn (hence, perhaps, his John Wayne–ish pseudonym of Raoul Duke). Clean-shaven in tennis shoes and Hawaiian shirts and mirrored aviators, his diminishing hair closely cropped, he looked like an off-duty cop who got lost on his way to the lido deck. He was a Second Amendment freak who fantasized about being a sheriff (as he wrote in his hilarious piece about running for chief lawman of Aspen in 1970), served in the military (the Air Force — as a sportswriter), and adored football. Thompson was a wandering master of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms — the regulatory holy trinity. The same man who called Nixon “a Cheapjack Punk and a Lust-Maddened Werewolf, whose very existence was (and remains) a bad cancer on the American political tradition,” could also note, of Generation Woodstock — his readers! — that “nobody guessed, back then, that the experiment might churn up this kind of hangover: a whole subculture of frightened illiterates with no faith in anything.” Of a McGovern campaign movie that he called “a flat-out masterpiece,” in which “the characters and the dialogue made Turgenev seem like a punk,” he nevertheless concluded, “Wonderful. No doubt about it. My only objection is that I disagree with almost everything he said.”
It’s a commonplace that Thompson was a kind of rock star, but what kind? We must get the subgenus right. Thompson didn’t wreathe himself in hippie idealism like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, didn’t float away on artful clouds of angst like Lou Reed or George Harrison. He was a Dada heavy-metalist, a screaming showman who thundered absurdly for the hell of it. Before Ozzy Osbourne snacked on bats, Hunter S. Thompson, during his drug orgy on the road to Las Vegas, conjured forth storms of them. Both men styled themselves “Doctor.” (Osbourne’s latest book: Trust Me, I’m Dr. Ozzy.) Each served as engineer and sole passenger on his own custom-designed crazy train. Their intent was not to instruct for our education, but to self-destruct for our amusement.
We read Thompson because his work was itself a drug, a merry intoxicant: HST. His typewriter howled and he set the night on fire. For those readers who are (unlike his editor Scanlon in that bar in 1973) unable at a glance to identify a specific street brand of LSD, his prose enables a safe, hangover-free visit to a place of deep and jangled weirdness. Here’s my favorite paragraph in the book, from a rare moment of post-Nixon-administration clarity when Thompson was covering the hilariously sordid divorce trial of newspaper heir Pete Pulitzer and his wife, Roxanne, in 1983 Palm Beach:
The servant problem is the Achilles’ heel of the rich. The only solution is robots, but we are still a generation or so away from that, and in the meantime it is just about impossible to hire a maid who is smart enough to make a bed but too dumb to wonder why it is full of naked people every morning. The gardener will not be comfortable with the sight of rope ladders hanging from the master-bedroom windows when he mows the lawn every morning, and any chauffeur with the brains to work a stick shift on a Rolls will also understand what’s happening when you wake him up at midnight and send him across the bridge to a goat farm in Loxahatchee for a pair of mature billys and a pound of animal stimulant.
Thompson is best discovered at about age 17, when the reader begins to notice he (it is almost always a he) has grown up in more comfort than 95 percent of the human race will ever know, and is looking for someone to blame for this. Thompson is the Virgil who guides the passage from splendid childish isolation to activist engagement — and then back out again, into the clean sunshine of pure mockery. Approvingly quoting Mencken — another conservative — he wrote, “The only way a reporter should look at a politician is down.” His absurdism was as much a rebuke to Very Serious Journalism as it was to pols or police.
Rarely did Thompson stoop to dispensing wisdom, but when he did so, he could make a success of it. Anyone who has ever spent much time covering big-time political campaigns will understand why Thompson felt the need to veer madly away from the speeches and “on background” gossip, free as a bat. “A sense of humor is not considered mandatory for those who want to get heavy into presidential politics,” he wrote in July 1972. “Junkies don’t laugh much; their gig is too serious.”
– Mr. Smith is a film critic for the New York Post.