Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Freak power

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, December 3-4, 2011

I wonder if I am underqualified to write about Hunter S. Thompson. Picture Thompson having an average day at the office. Nude except for a pair of Ray Bans, he breakfasts on iced Wild Turkey, types out an eyewitness account of some Hell’s Angels committing a gang rape, throws down a fistful of mescaline, then steps outside to discharge one of his shotguns at a passing bear, inadvertently wounding his secretary in the leg. 

Now picture me: fully clothed at my laptop, in a room void of firearms and dead wildlife, fuelled by a cocktail of Lipton’s Intense and chilled juice. I’m not even that sure what mescaline is. 

When Thompson shot himself dead in 2005, his best work was well behind him. This burly new anthology of his writings for Rolling Stone provides a generous reminder of how good his best work was. The book isn’t quite the collection of Thompson’s “essential writing” that it claims to be: several of his key early articles – including his story on the Hell’s Angels – aren’t represented, because he wrote them before he came to Rolling Stone. But even with those pieces missing, this is a gleaming compilation of greatest hits. 

Thompson’s trademark as a reporter was to put himself at the front and centre of the story. He called it Gonzo journalism. Other American journalists were doing similar things at the time, but nobody else fashioned a narrative persona like his. The approach had its hazards: there was a constant danger that the authorial hijinks would smother the story, and that Thompson would degenerate into a caricature of himself. 

Something like that happened to him in the end. But before it did, he produced a lot of journalism that blew everybody else’s out of the water. His first Rolling Stone article, which appeared in 1970, recounted his failed bid to be elected sheriff of Aspen, Colorado. He ran on a “freak power” ticket, at a time when the youth vote was becoming a serious force in American politics. “I will have to work very hard – and spew out some really heinous ideas during my campaign – to get less than 30 per cent of the vote in a three-way race.” Notice that Thompson the writer retains a healthy ironic perspective on Thompson the character here: he is in no danger of vanishing into the nutcase persona. 

He is similarly in control during the 200 pages of political dispatches that constitute the book’s finest stretch. In 1972 he covered the Democratic primaries, followed by the Presidential race between Nixon and McGovern. Thompson didn’t, thank God, try to be even-handed in his reporting: he thought objective journalism a “contradiction in terms.” He just chronicled his own impressions, in gloriously pungent and enduring prose. “He talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year’s crop,” he wrote about the failed Democratic contender Ed Muskie. “The sense of depression began spreading like a piss-puddle on concrete.” 

And then there was Nixon, who inspired some of Thompson’s most memorable flights of invective. “Why does he drink martinis, instead of Wild Turkey? Why does he wear boxer shorts? Why is his life a grim monument to everything plastic, de-sexed, and nonsensual?” 

Thompson’s writings from the campaign trail were wickedly inventive at the verbal level, but they took no liberties with the facts. In “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – represented here by a brief extract – Thompson did something different. He wrote about a semi-private reality, distorted by his own prodigious intake of drugs. He called the work a “strange neo-fictional outburst”, and I risk heresy when I say that I find it relatively tiresome. It isn’t Thompson’s fault that it spawned one of the least funny films ever made. But its success encouraged a strain of pure fantasy in his work that yielded diminishing returns. One of the later pieces in this book is a fictional satire involving Thompson, Judge Clarence Thomas, and a pair of prostitutes. I’ve tried reading it twice, and failed both times. When he was making things up, Thompson could be unbearably heavy-handed. His surrealistic verbal riffs worked best when laid down on a solid factual base. 

There is evidence that Thompson was aware of this. One of this book’s charms is that it reprints letters Thompson wrote to Rolling Stone staffers while composing his articles. Expressing reservations about an over-exuberant early piece, he says: “Whenever I belch out my bias that strongly, it takes on an element of craziness … and I want to be careful of this.” The Gonzo approach put him on a tonal tightrope. When extracts from his Hell’s Angels book were reprinted out of context, he pronounced himself “shocked … All it takes is a few cuts on the Humor to make the rest seem like the ravings of a dangerous lunatic.” 

Since context was so vital to Thompson’s effects, one wishes the editors of this collection had provided more of it. By my count the book contains only two footnotes. This verges on the bizarre. A reader shouldn’t be expected to navigate a thirty- or forty-year-old piece of journalism without help. For example: do you remember, or did you ever know in the first place, what “blunder” George McGovern committed concerning Thomas Eagleton? Full marks if you didn’t have to Google it. Do you know whether Muhammad Ali won or lost his rematch with Leon Spinks? Reading Thompson’s interview with Ali, conducted during preparations for that bout, will make you awfully curious about the result. And who is Joey Buttafuoco, to whom Thompson makes three or four passing references? I think I knew once: but his name is as obscure to me now as Kim Kardashian’s will be in ten years’ time. I wasted far too many minutes shuttling between this book and Wikipedia. 

Thompson’s journalism is worth preserving. If it’s to be preserved properly, someone will eventually have to do the paratextual legwork that the current editors have neglected to put in. But apart from that one failing, they have assembled a wonderful book. “I aimed the big Lincoln through the opening, spinning the wheels in low gear and sending up rooster tails of mud on the crowd …” How American Thompson was: not just in his selection of machinery and substances and metaphors, but in the way he wound up letting his celebrity compromise his work. But even towards the end, there was still the occasional story that roused him to rediscover his old rhythms. Here he is after the death of his old enemy Richard Nixon, paying his respects. “The record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.”