Great Gonzo

Hunter Thompson's letters thrill and enthrall.

Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist (The Gonzo Letters, Volume 2), by Hunter S. Thompson. Simon & Schuster, $30.

Hunter Thompson, the drunk, degenerate, drug-addled gun-nut genius who defined his times and invented a new style of journalism, used to party with Patrick J. Buchanan. That's right. Pat Buchanan.

That's just one of the myriad interesting facts packed into Fear and Loathing in America, the second installment in a projected three-volume collection of Thompson's letters.

Thompson, of course, is best known for his brutal and brilliant adventures in Gonzo Journalism, the fiercely subjective, highly participatory combination of reportage and commentary best displayed in his masterworks, Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Thompson, who recognized his own talent long before anyone else did, began keeping carbon copies of his correspondence (and self-portrait photos) early on. It was a smart move. His letters are every bit as interesting and savage as his other writings, and provide a nice historical counterpart to his other works.

In the first volume of Thompson's letters, Proud Highway, which covered the years 1955-67, Thompson was revealed as an inveterate iconoclast with a healthy distrust of authority and a passion for guns, booze, H.L Mencken and Ayn Rand (his trademark Fear and Loathing is lifted from Atlas Shrugged).

Fear and Loathing in America covers the years 1968-76, the most important period in Thompson's life. It was during this period that he came to maturity, perfecting his style and defining his politics. Like the stomping he got at the end of Hell's Angels, the beating Thompson got from the cops at the chaotic 1968 Democratic Convention was a turning point in his career. The beating, and the crimes he witnessed, left Thompson bitter, scarred, disillusioned. It was during this time that Thompson created his most lasting and influential works. It was at this time, too, that he created the character Raoul Duke, later ripped off by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury.

For me, the best thing about Thompson's letters is the insight they reveal about his relationships with other personalities. Perhaps most touching among these is the relationship Thompson had with the El Paso brawler, Chicano activist attorney, and struggling writer Oscar "Zeta" Acosta. Thompson met Acosta in Los Angeles while working on a story about the killing of another Chicano activist, Ruben Salazar, whose head was blown off by a tear gas grenade launched by cops into a crowded bar.

In Acosta, a rabble-rousing drunk and drug fiend, Thompson found a fast friend. (Dr. Gonzo, the Samoan attorney in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is Oscar Acosta; the book's plot recounts the pair's Vegas adventures.) The friendship, revealed in letters exchanged between the two, is heartbreaking as it gradually and bitterly deteriorates over legal wranglings concerning the book and film rights. The last letter comes to Thompson from Acosta's sister, asking for help locating her disappeared brother; Dr. Gonzo vanished somewhere off the coast of Mexico and was never found.

Letters to and from other friends and associates are equally interesting--mystery novelist and fellow Louisville native Sue Grafton, fellow journalist and hard drinker Charles Kuralt, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, George Plimpton, and Tom Wolfe, who simultaneously created another new brand of journalism. (Like Thompson's, Wolfe's journalism is participatory, but much more objective. For a striking example of the difference, dig up both authors' takes on the Merry Pranksters-Hell's Angels bash that Thompson set up.)

There are also letters to and from old friends now seen regularly in the media--Pat Caddell, the former McGovern operative-turned-television analyst who was one of the only on-air voices of reason in the recent election mess; Doris Kearns Goodwin, the cute and charming codger who's on every television news program there is, sharing her expertise on presidential history; and Garry Wills, the liberal intellectual and prolific magazine writer. (It's interesting to imagine what Thompson would say about Wills' recent flawed and intellectually bankrupt anti-gun ravings.)

And what about that friendship with Pat Buchanan? In a letter to Wills, Thompson says this about Pitchfork Pat: "He's one of the few hit-men ... that I can really enjoy getting it on with. We disagree so violently on almost everything that it's a real pleasure to drink with him. If nothing else, he's absolutely honest in his lunacy ... I like the bastard."

Like Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy before them, Thompson and Buchanan should tour the lecture circuit together. If not very lucid, the act would at least be lively. Just don't raise a hand to them. For all their differences, it's a safe bet they'll both be packing.

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