Addled Wisdom

The Life And Times Of Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Journalist.
By Gregory McNamee

HUNTER S. THOMPSON does not suffer fools gladly. (For that matter, he seems to suffer no one else gladly.) A survivor of the 1960s, he has deemed his contemporaries "a whole subculture of frightened illiterates" and those younger than them "a generation of swine." And these are the people he professes to like.

Still, he has carved out a niche for himself as the most beatifically foolish journalist working in America today. No believer in so-called reportorial objectivity, he has also become far better known than most of his subjects. While few people remember Thomas Eagleton these days, for example, who makes a brief appearance in Thompson's savage book Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, millions of readers remember Thompson's equally savage drug intake in the pages of his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the circumstances surrounding which Thompson ruefully recounts in a recent Rolling Stone interview with P.J. O'Rourke.

The Acid Era has left its scars on the man. He has never recovered from the paranoia of the Nixon years, and his reclusiveness is legendary. For that reason, Paul Perry warns us early on, his life of Thompson, Fear and Loathing (Thunder's Mouth Press, $11.95) "is a violently unauthorized biography."

Scottsdale resident Perry himself is no detached observer. As editor of Running magazine in the early 1980s, he commissioned Thompson to report on an athletic competition in Hawaii. Thompson, fueled by all sorts of chemical compounds and incentive-reducing beverages, never delivered the manuscript Perry expected, but the all-expenses-paid trip later yielded Thompson's disappointing book The Curse of Lono.

Perry's hours trying to coax a printable text from Thompson had results, too: They gave him an up-close look at the writer, as well as a means of discovering a few details about the man behind the druggy mask.

From Perry we learn that Thompson began life with an Horatio Alger-like slice of the American Dream. Born to genteel poverty into an old Louisville family, Thompson was a young golden boy, popular in school for his athletic prowess, good looks, quick wit, and gift with a pen. As a teenager, however, Thompson took to drinking and hell-raising; he failed to graduate from high school and, as an enlistee in the Air Force, managed to rack up nearly every punishment duty short of time in Leavenworth for countless acts of rebellion. (His unit commander, according to Thompson, called him "totally of the most savage and unnatural airmen I've ever come up against.")

Dismissed from the service in 1957, Thompson wandered into New York, promptly found a series of plum journalistic jobs and just as promptly lost them, married and divorced and married again, and then took up the beatnik life in Puerto Rico and, later, at Big Sur.

Only after a few years of poverty did Thompson give up the bongos-and-Chianti life and find meaningful work. He made his way to Latin America and began to submit pieces on speculation to the newly founded National Observer, a newspaper of opinion. The editors liked what they saw, especially a story that Thompson filed from Caracas, Venezuela, in which he described a British diplomat who practiced his golf game on his penthouse terrace, driving golf balls far out into the city below; "Where they fell," Thompson wrote, "neither he nor I nor anyone else on the terrace that day had the vaguest idea."

Still, Perry reminds us, straight journalism and Thompson never quite seemed to coincide. When in need of a colorful anecdote to enliven a story, Thompson would cheerfully invent one. His unlikely tales of ever-uglier Americans south of the equator finally came under editorial scrutiny, and Thompson was dismissed.

Finding a new home at Scanlan's magazine, Thompson relocated to San Francisco, where he found the subject that would make his reputation: the nation's most vicious motorcycle gang, his study of which led to his first book, Hell's Angels. He also discovered, in those heady days of 1964, other matters that would carry his reputation even farther: chemicals with names like LSD, STP and DMT.

The effects of those drugs upon a mind already given to inventing tales and presenting them as fact soon led to the formulation of Thompson's now-famous style, "Gonzo journalism." Whether it can be called journalism at all is an issue Perry does not address, but certainly Thompson's purported fly-on-the-wall encounters with J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and more recently Clarence Thomas, published as straight fact, are some of the funniest fictions since Mark Twain's day.

But a good lie, as we all know, can convey a world of truth.

Res ipsa loquitur, Thompson is fond of saying. The thing speaks for itself. Perry's useful--and enormously entertaining--book surely does. Knowing about Thompson unalloyed, thanks to Perry's researches, will likely reduce the admiration many people feel for the man, whose fame derives from some, if not all, of the wrong reasons. Fear and Loathing gives us an unflinching look into the sometimes twisted mind of the foremost chronicler of the Death of the American Dream. Read it and weep. TW

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