[sixties-l] Fwd: Gonzo, where have you gone?

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: 12/30/00

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    >December 23, 2000
    >Gonzo, where have you gone?
    >A new collection of Hunter S. Thompson's letters
    >recalls his salad days, before his slow, sad decline
    >Robin Gambhir
    >National Post
    >When Richard Nixon died, most commentators went out of their
    >way to say nice things about a man who had abused the trust of
    >the American people and made a mockery of the presidency. Not
    >Hunter S. Thompson, who instead eulogized Nixon as "a swine of a
    >man and a jabbering dupe of a president."
    >This was classic Thompson, a unique writer who came to the fore
    >at the crux of America's cultural breach birth, as sub-cultures and
    >counter-cultures became part of the common culture. With all of
    >the social and cultural chaos that ensued in the years following
    >the murder of President Kennedy, nothing was beyond the pale --
    >not taking drugs and writing about it, as Thompson did in Fear and
    >Loathing in Las Vegas, his most well-known book, and not even
    >calling the president a swine (or worse).
    >To get at the truth, Thompson's brand of "Gonzo Journalism"
    >threw objectivity to the dogs. And even though he has now been
    >writing this way for over 30 years, it is still a style uniquely his
    >own. As a style, it doesn't so much defy definition as elude it.
    >Gonzo places Thompson at the centre of the action and usually
    >involves a fantastical tale that mixes satire and caricature to the
    >point where it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.
    >Thompson's writing is a lot like the stories guys tell each other
    >over a few beers, except far more outlandish. Like most guys
    >stories, there is an element of self-aggrandizement; unlike these
    >stories there is also moral outrage and a sort of misanthropic
    >social satire. Thompson hates just about everyone to varying
    >degrees and for varying reasons. In "The Kentucky Derby is
    >Decadent and Depraved," a magazine article that originally
    >appeared in Scanlan's Monthly in 1970 and the first definitive
    >piece of Gonzo Journalism, Thompson paints a horrific picture of
    >the Derby:
    >"'That whole thing,' I said, 'will be jammed with people; fifty
    >thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It's a
    >fantastic scene -- thousands of people fainting, crying,
    >copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey
    >bottles . . . By midafternoon they'll be guzzling mint juleps with
    >both hands and vomiting on each other between races. The whole
    >place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It's hard to
    >move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling
    >down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped.
    >Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping
    >handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up.'"
    >Thompson's writing was less a product of his time than a reaction
    >to it. For example, Nixon looms large in Thompson's work as an evil
    >monster that represents the death of all that was good and right
    >in America. When Thompson was growing up in the post-war era,
    >the American dream mythology, buoyed by economic expansion,
    >was a strong cultural force. But all of that seemed to spiral
    >downward after Kennedy's assassination and it weighed heavily on
    >both Thompson and his country. The death of the American
    >dream, and all those he associated with it, is at the crux of
    >everything Thompson has written since his first book, Hell's Angels
    >(his account of a year he spent riding with the outlaw motorcycle
    >gang) was published in 1967. If Thompson's writing has an
    >apocalyptic quality to it, it has a lot to do with the time in which
    >he was writing and the people he was writing about.
    >Thompson's gonzo style garnered him fame in all quarters, and he
    >was widely solicited to write for magazines such as Playboy,
    >Scanlan's and later, Rolling Stone. But Fear and Loathing in Las
    >Vegas is the book that made him truly famous. In the same way
    >that generations of people (usually young men) discover Henry
    >Miller by reading Tropic of Cancer, so too readers often discover
    >Thompson by reading his deranged chronicle of roaming around
    >as Vegas with his "attorney" in a mood that varies from a
    >drug-induced haze to extreme paranoia. The opening of the book
    >sets the tone:
    >"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert
    >when the drugs began to take hold . . . And suddenly there was a
    >terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like
    >huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car,
    >which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down
    >to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are
    >these goddamn animals?'"
    >If this kind of writing excites you, you are not alone. Imagine
    >reading two hundred pages of it and you will understand why
    >Vegas has remained popular. It has all the attractions of a
    >roller-coaster ride: horror, euphoria, speed and danger.
    >Two years after Vegas appeared, Thompson, now an unlikely
    >celebrity, covered the 1972 presidential election for Rolling Stone.
    >He sent in articles every two weeks for a year as he crossed the
    >country with the candidates. These articles would eventually be
    >published in book form as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign
    >Trail. It stands as one of the best accounts of what it was like to
    >be in the press fraternity (female political correspondents were
    >largely unheard of at that time).
    >Thompson proved an insightful and talented political observer and
    >his coverage was taken just as seriously as any other
    >correspondent. Odd, given the subjects Thompson wrote about before he
    >assumed the national affairs desk for Rolling Stone.
    >Commenting later, George McGovern, the Democrat candidate,
    >said he was told Thompson was "an eccentric, brilliant, perceptive
    >reporter, that he reached a wide and young audience and that he
    >was not to be taken lightly." 1972 was a high watermark for
    >  Thompson, one that he has not reached since.
    >In the early 1980s, Thompson's marriage collapsed under the
    >weight of years of drug abuse, alcoholism and beatings. Sandy
    >Thompson, the wife who had worked cleaning motel rooms so her
    >husband could write, had had enough. Under the protection of a
    >sheriff's deputy, she was escorted from their home in Woody
    >Creek, Colorado.
    >Some say that this precipitated the decline in both the quantity
    >and quality of Thompson's writing. The Curse of Lono (1983) was
    >the last sustained effort at writing Thompson made during the
    >1980s. Here, Thompson returned to his venerable road trip
    >approach to "cover" the Honolulu Marathon. But both the locus
    >and subject matter were a little off for his readership. It was
    >inevitably compared to Vegas and, while it was warmly received,
    >general opinion held that it simply was not as good.
    >Thompson's writing has remained in demand because there is a
    >constituency of readers who will buy anything he publishes, but
    >Thompson has always been a relentless perfectionist and,
    >following the end of his marriage, he felt he had nothing more to
    >The need for money and the constant badgering of his publishers,
    >however, led him to cover the 1992 presidential campaign. The
    >result was Better Than Sex. Those who had read his 1972 election
    >coverage were disappointed. Thompson wasn't on the bus for this
    >one, in fact he "covered" it from home. Some of the observations
    >are amusing, even insightful, but in the end the whole book
    >smacks of self-parody. A series of faxes between Clinton aide
    >George Stephanopoulos and Thompson, ostensibly reprinted
    >verbatim, would suggest Thompson was "right in there" for this
    >campaign, but in Stephanopoulos's political memoir All Too Human,
    >he does not mention Thompson once.
    >Most writers, at the end of their creative lives, start publishing old
    >material that often should have stayed manuscripts. In 1999, 40
    >years after he started it, Thompson published his novel The Rum
    >Diary, a fictional account of a hard-drinking reporter's life in 1950s
    >San Juan. In the context of his later work, the novel is a curiosity
    >that shows little of the gonzo style he is famous for.
    >To publish a collection of letters is the literary equivalent of a
    >death rattle. As Thompson publishes his second collection, Fear &
    >Loathing in America: The Gonzo Letters Vol. 2: The Brutal
    >Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist (Simon & Schuster, 784 pp.,
    >$44.50), one wonders if this may be true of his career. It would
    >be a sad end for a man who has been a singular voice in what has
    >become a frequently harmonized American media.
    >Reading letters is usually the province of academics; unless you
    >have a tendency towards literary voyeurism, it is pretty dry stuff.
    >The letters in Fear and Loathing in America are different. Not just
    >because Thompson wrote them, but also because many of the
    >people he was writing to and about were making history at the
    >time. The anthology covers the period from 1968 to 1976, when
    >Thompson would produce his most famous work. It was also a
    >time that witnessed some significant events in recent American
    >history: the Apollo moon landing, Woodstock, the end of the
    >Vietnam war, Watergate and the rise of fall of Richard Nixon.
    >Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history who edited this volume,
    >has done a good job of contextualizing Thompson's letters. Each
    >one is preceded by a short paragraph that explains its relevance
    >to Thompson and as a reflection of the times. Footnotes are
    >provided to explain some of the otherwise obscure references
    >made by Thompson.
    >In one of the more interesting exchanges, a self-proclaimed
    >"bored-to-tears" housewife wrote fawningly to Thompson after he
    >published Hell's Angels. She commented that the Angels sounded
    >"wild and delirious ... I envy you the experience and the fun you
    >must have had with them. You must have had a perpetual ball!"
    >  Thompson wrote back congratulating her on her perceptiveness
    >and noted that the whole thing was a "wonderful rat-f--- and, as
    >[she] put it, 'a perpetual ball.'"
    >However, Thompson was alarmed at the notoriety the book had
    >brought. Complaining to his editor, he said "you can't imagine the
    >wild s--- that gets forwarded to me." To dissuade this housewife
    >from writing again, he went on to tell her that two of the Angels
    >had just left his house and were heading out to New York to stay
    >with her. "They'll show you where it's at," he wrote, "and your friends
    >too if they want it."
    >For a reader of Thompson's work, the letters between Thompson
    >and his editors, friends and colleagues make you feel like you are
    >privy to Thompson's private thoughts -- all the thoughts,
    >speculations and musings that assume a much more definitive
    >tone in his published work. They also provide a context for these
    >works. At the same time, the letters' subjects are expansive;
    >everything from missives to presidents about the Vietnam War to
    >one requesting a refund for a parka (Thompson was very
    >particular about the quality of the garments he wore : A fan of
    >L.L. Bean, he frequently found other companies' merchandise
    >In terms of his much vaunted, stream-of-invective gonzo style,
    >the letters reveal a far more sedate -- even pedantic -- Hunter
    >Thompson. The letters to his son and his mother betray nothing of
    >his wild-man persona.
    >Does the publication of Thompson's early novel and collections of
    >letters mark the end of his career? It would appear that this is the
    >case. His author's note, the only piece of original writing in the
    >book, is meandering and unfocused. It seems his powers may be
    >on the wane, his muse fled.
    >Yet the old letters themselves are wonderful stuff: funny,
    >intriguing and sometimes poignant. They are equally important as
    >part of the historical record as they are to journalism and yes,
    >even literature. Ultimately Fear and Loathing in America is a
    >cultural study of a crucial time in American history -- when both
    >Thompson and his country lost their innocence and their dream.
    >Robin Gambhir lives, works and writes in Toronto.

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