by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 1, 2005
THE GONZO LEGACY OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- You had to figure that sooner or later, Hunter S. Thompson would take the Hemingway path.
He wasn't going to go gentle into that good night. He was going to either spontaneously explode from all the drugs and alcohol ingested over his lifetime or he was going to clamp his lips around one of the many guns in his collection and be like ol' Ernie and go to the express checkout line of death when he felt he couldn't get around on the fastball anymore.
So now, we're left without a man who was absolutely fearless when it came to reporting. A man who had no qualms about inserting himself into the middle of what he was reporting, because how the hell else are you going know what you're writing about. A man who ruined more writers and inspired more second-rate imitators than Hemingway himself.
The world is lot less interesting without Dr. Thompson in the house.
At least he left us with some great writing. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" the 1971 book that is the generally acknowledged flowering of "Gonzo Journalism," is part of the literary canon now.
Before "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Thompson was seen as an itinerant journalist with an affinity for drugs and outlaws. His first book in 1966, "Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga," was fairly successful, but Thompson more thought of as an anthropologist of the weird.
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" changed that. With that book, he helped single-handedly launch the most imitated literary genre of the last 30 years.
"Gonzo Journalism" was a style of reporting that Thompson had been refining for several years. "Hells Angels" was the first attempt at Gonzo, a subgenre of the "New Journalism" created by Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin at the old New York Herald Tribune and by Gay Talese at Esquire in the early 1960s. New Journalism was about writers doing legwork, being involved in the stories they wrote about, and applying literary techniques normally associated with novels.
Thompson's first book definitely fit into that genre. He hung out with the Angels, rode with them and got stomped within an inch of his life when his adventure ended. Still, Thompson said that the Angels considered his book the only honest thing ever written about them. "I got a lot in common with the Hell's Angels," he once said, "the main difference is that I've got a gimmick - I can write."
The experience with the Angels was the break between Thompson, the conventional journalist who wrote mostly for the now-defunct National Observer, and Thompson, the Prince of Gonzo. He discovered the freedom that came from writing what you saw and did without the artificial constraints of objectivity and the Five W's.
Thompson once defined Gonzo Journalism as "intense, demented involvement." It took a few more pieces for Thompson to refine his style. He would eventually hit upon it in "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," which was published in the short-lived magazine Scanlan's Monthly in June 1970.
Thompson and Welsh illustrator Ralph Steadman were assigned to cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby and observe the drunken frenzy that's Derby Week in Louisville. Instead, they became part of it. But when it came time to start writing the story, on the Monday after the race, the news of the Kent State massacre sent Thompson into a drunken depression. He was holed up in a New York City hotel room. Instead of writing, he spent hours each day in the bathtub chugging scotch straight from the bottle.
Out of desperation, his editors sent copyboys to his room to get something, anything to fill the space. Thompson gave them some of his handwritten notes scribbled during the Derby debauchery. An hour later, the copyboys were back for more and his editors raved about how good it was. What seemed like a hopelessly botched project became an act of inspired genius.
The Derby story caused a sensation. The race itself was just a backdrop to what Thompson described as "an atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable tradition." The piece dripped with anger over how his racist and insular hometown could throw a party while the world was exploding around them.
It was raw, elemental, and the journalistic equivalent of a kick in the groin.
The intense, demented involvement is one element of Gonzo that can be found in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." The other comes from something that most Thompson fans would probably not notice: F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."
Fitzgerald and Nelson Algren were the two authors that most influenced Thompson, but Fitzgerald was Thompson's main literary role model. Years before he wrote "Vegas," Thompson typed long passages of "Gatsby" to get the feel of what it was like to write like Fitzgerald.
"I've said it before, 'Gatsby' is possibly the Great American Novel, if you look at it as a technical achievement," Thompson told P.J. O'Rourke in a Rolling Stone interview in 1996. "It's about 55,000 words, which was astounding to me. In 'Vegas,' I tried to compete with that. I've always competed with that. Not a wasted word. That has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life. Shoot, I couldn't match 55,000 no matter how I chopped. There are few things that I read and say, 'Boy I wish I could write that.' Damn few. The Book of Revelation is one. 'Gatsby' is one. You finish 'Gatsby,' and you feel like you've been in somebody else's world a long time."
The parallels between "Gatsby" and "Vegas" aren't readily apparent. After all, Nick Carraway was not cruising around Long Island with a car full of drugs and a 300-pound Samoan attorney. Peter Whitmer makes a strong case for the connections between the two books in his 1993 Thompson biography, "When The Going Gets Weird."
Like Carraway, Whitmer wrote that Thompson was looking for the American Dream and "all arrows seemed pointed at Las Vegas ... a carnal, venal, legal fantasy for anyone who could afford the gas to get there. It was West Egg, East Egg, and the Golden Egg, all rolled into one."
In that last golden era, before Las Vegas became a Disney World-like theme park with slot machines, it was the perfect place - like Gatsby's West Egg - to explore what Thompson called "the fantastic possibilities of life in this country."
Las Vegas was a place where psychedelic drugs weren't needed, Thompson concluded, because "reality itself is too twisted." That of course didn't stop Thompson and his companion, Chicano lawyer Oscar Acosta (thinly disguised as the Samoan) from consuming massive amounts of controlled substances while running amok in Las Vegas.
Thompson believed that the enforcers of moral virtue in America were absolutely clueless about the drug culture, but the people of the Woodstock Generation were equally clueless. They were lost forever because of "the fatal flaw in Tim Leary's trip;" that the LSD-induced vision of a better world turned out to be a mirage.
"There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right and we were winning...And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting - on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave... ."
But the hippies would not prevail, and Thompson knew it. That's why "Vegas" became, in Thompson's words, "a vile epitaph for the Drug Culture of the Sixties ... a sort of Atavistic Endeavor, a dream trip into the past - however recent - that was only half successful."
After "Vegas," Thompson's literary reputation was secure. He followed it up in 1973 with what I believe is the best book on modern politics ever written, "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail." The run ended with an excellent anthology of his 1970s work, "The Great Shark Hunt," in 1979.
Since then, Thompson's output was erratic at best and little that he has written in the past two decades approached the genius of "Vegas" and "Campaign Trail." Despite the now legendary tales of debauchery associated with Thompson, he lived far longer than he or anyone else has expected, long enough to go from living legend to parody. Unlike Fitzgerald, he didn't have the luck to die not long after the era that he chronicled did.
Thompson was definitely a man out of time in the era of George W. Bush - hedonistic in an age of puritanism, caustic in an age of political correctness, defiantly rebellious and hostile to authority in an age of repression and punishment. And now he's gone, just when we need him most.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.-