This review originally appeared in The Washington Post.
Fear and Loathing in America
By Hunter S. Thompson
Reviewed by G. Beato
Hunter S. Thompson has two new books out, and both of them are old. "Screwjack," which was originally published in 1991 in a limited edition of 326 copies, is a slim collection of three pieces that are simultaneously slight and rambling: in the first, Thompson takes lots of drugs; in the second, his friend commits suicide after squabbling with a sex doll; in the third, Thompson makes out with his cat. Synopsized like that, it sounds at least as entertaining as an Eminem CD, but it isn't. Shaped like a book, priced like a book, "Screwjack" is ultimately little more than an exercise in selling chicken soup to the gonzo soul--and while Thompson has certainly established a willingness to publish recycled, self-plagiarized, and less-than-inspired work over the past two decades, even he must be a little embarrassed by the pure meretriciousness of this endeavour.
"Fear and Loathing in America," Thompson's other new old book, is as substantial as "Screwjack" is slight. Like his 1997 book, "The Proud Highway," this one is a collection of his personal letters, the second in an eventual three-volume series. "The Proud Highway" includes Thompson's letters from 1955 through 1967; "Fear and Loathing…" covers 1968 through 1976, when Thompson was writing his most important works and exerting his greatest influence on the culture. At over 800 pages, the book has room for a little bit of everything. In one letter, Thompson demands a refund from a catalog merchant called The Alaska Sleeping Bag Company. ("If the garbage on this coat is leather, I'll eat it.") In others, he's laying out the basic tenets of Gonzo, or organizing ambitious political conferences with top Democratic Party operatives, or dressing down a 91-year-old lady who inadvertently read Rolling Stone and was offended by his "vulgarity." With many letters devoted to Thompson's detailed haggling over AWOL royalties and inhumane expense policies, the narrative of "Fear and Loathing in America" occasionally drags. But in the end the informal comprehensiveness of these dispatches capture the era and mood of late-'60s/early '70s America in a way that is both remarkably immediate and wondrously distant. Was there really a time when mescaline-championing freaks could run for sheriff in a small American town and almost win? When glossy magazines ran 10,000-word articles not involving celebrities? Tell us more, Uncle Gonzo!
As with "The Proud Highway," the simple existence of these letters is revelatory in itself: who would have guessed that the dope-addled, peripatetic Thompson, who was so seemingly out of control that each last-minute story he filed came across as a miraculous convergence of typing paper, chemical incentive, and editorial triage team, was also a careful correspondent/diarist who carbon-copied and saved 20,000 letters over the last five decades? Or that he worried how "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" might affect his reputation as a serious journalist if packaged with his other work? Or that he was not actually on drugs at all when those imaginary bats started darkening the sky just outside of Barstow? "My conception of the piece was to write a thing that would tell what it was like to do a magazine assignment with a head full of weird drugs," he explains in a letter to his skeptical Random House editor Jim Silberman. "As I noted, the nature (& specifics) of the piece has already fooled the editors of Rolling Stone…" he continues, asking Silberman to keep his own conclusions to himself.
If these letters show Thompson as far more clear-headed and calculating than his literary persona suggests, they also reveal that his larger-than-life aura and fantastic contrarian assurance were innate aspects of his personality rather than products of his eventual celebrity. "I see your efforts more as a tactical--and not a determining--factor in the '68 elections," he writes to presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy, when he (Thompson) was still relatively unknown. "Any ideas about how I could be of help would have to come from you…but if you have any, I assure you I'll go out of my way to deal with them."
While firing off familiar, unsolicitous offers of service to unsuspecting senators clearly gave Thompson pleasure, his incessant letter-writing troubled him as well. "What makes a man write letters, night after night, instead of profitable manuscript pages?" he muses at the end of a three-page letter to his friend Steve Geller. Throughout the text of "Fear and Loathing in America," the answer surfaces again and again.
"I'm getting a little tired of writing articles that everybody praises and nobody prints," he tells novelist and former colleague William Kennedy, after turning in a 140-page manuscript on the NRA to Esquire. "I've been writing for 11 years," he says to Random House's Silberman, "and never--not once, not even with my poem in Spider magazine--have I ever had anything published straight."
It's a dilemma all writers face, of course, but given Thompson's idiosyncratic, innovative muse, he was especially vulnerable to its torments. Glossy magazine editors fell for his outsized, over-the-top, solipstic persona just as as readers eventually would--until he handed in copy, that is. Then, they wanted something a little straighter, a little less Gonzo. Book-writing offered a possible escape, but Thompson was hindered by his own great expectations: after his first book "Hell's Angels" emerged as a best-selling cultural bellwether, he was determined to follow it with something that would leave even bigger boot-prints on his era. Thus, a project called "The Death of the American Dream." For several years, Thompson struggled to hash out a narrative that would both tether that gassy title to something tangible and also send it soaring over all those doomed fruited plains it was obliged to encompass-- but he never really came up with a solution.
Instead, he wrote letters. "I'm having a hint of twisted fun with this letter…" he says to Silberman in the midst of a nearly 4000-word letter. "I haven't written anything for a while, and I miss that kind of high rambling feeling you get when the crank comes on and THE MEANING is almost clear; just around the next bend, or at the end of the next crude tangent…" Such statements make it easy to see why Thompson took so strongly to the form. Letters are personal, spontaneous, informal--everything that Gonzo aimed to be, except that the drugs were optional.
As the '70s became the '80s and then the '90s, Gonzo was tamed and neutered and institutionalized, magazines shifted their focus from fear and loathing to gear and clothing, and even Rolling Stone went from publishing violent, unpredictable provocateurs (i.e. Thompson) to chastising them (i.e. Eminem). At the same time, Thompson developed a reputation as a cartoonish, drug-shot coot whose grand ambitions of imminent Menckenhood had gone up in great billowy clouds of sinsimella and gunsmoke. In part, Thompson's bad rap is no doubt deserved; if he'd been a little more flexible and a little less self-indulgent, he could have had a much more productive career as a writer of magazine articles and books. On the other hand, why change his vision when he'd found an outlet for his efforts that didn't require any compromises? Writing letters didn't have the same immediate pay-off, of course, but that's what the carbon copies were for.
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