The first Hunter Thompson book I ever read was Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, but I had at least some awareness of him even before then.
In my late teens I had gotten into Norman Mailer and read several of his books, starting with The Fight about the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974. What Mailer had to say about Thompson—and I think I came across one or more other references to Thompson around that same time in writings by other people—painted the picture of a bizarrely comic, intelligent, perpetually drunk or stoned writer, given to unpredictable, anti-social antics. An impression that turned out to be true in all its particulars by the way.
I still remember the accounts of Thompson stumbling around Kinshasa, Zaire muttering “Bad Genet! Bad Genet!” (I know virtually nothing about playwright Jean Genet, but I think he was known for the gimmick of casting black actors for white parts. So the idea would be that Zaire was like an imitation of the Western countries run by whites that Thompson and his ilk would be used to, except even more inefficient and corrupt, so not a very good imitation.) And then the day of the fight itself, he reportedly “covered” the event by dumping a massive quantity of marijuana into his hotel pool and floating around in it while the fight took place miles away.
Thompson is associated with Mailer and people like that in that he was one of the pioneers of participatory journalism, where a book or article about some event is written in the form of the story of the writer’s connection to or participation in the event.
The Great Shark Hunt is a collection of essays and book excerpts from the ’60s and ’70s. Some of the pieces are written in an extreme form of participatory journalism where they are so much about his covering an event that you only learn about the event itself peripherally. Typically they’re stories about his drinking and doing large quantities of drugs because (not that he needs a reason) he’s in a panic because he can’t get the access he needs to the event he’s supposed to cover, or because he has terrible writer’s block and has no clue what to write about the event, with the deadline fast approaching.
You get kind of caught up in this background piece about what it was like to research and write the story, to where you’re thinking “Now it’ll be really interesting to read what story came out of this process.” Except there isn’t one. What you’re reading is the story. He never did overcome the writer’s block and such to write something to beat the deadline; he just submitted this account of his struggling to do so as his story.
At least on a superficial level, the way he never actually gets to the story obviously can be frustrating and unsatisfying to a reader. Yet there’s something funny and even strangely fascinating about it. A story about how his misadventures prevented him from writing a story can be interesting in itself. The Escher-like or self-referential narrative structure of some of this stuff reminds me of the Charlie Kaufman movie Adaptation.
By no means are all these pieces of that style. Some are still participatory journalism type pieces that are in part about his involvement in the story, but not to the exclusion of the story itself. You get as much substance about the event or subject as you’d expect in a conventional journalistic piece; it’s just presented differently, more autobiographically.
Still others are less if at all about him and presumably wouldn’t even count as participatory journalism. These are mostly the earlier pieces from the early to mid ’60s. (The pieces are not presented in chronological order, which is not an editing decision I agree with. I would have preferred to be able to more easily follow the evolution of his style.)
Yet even the ones that aren’t so bizarre in their narrative structure still deviate from mainstream journalism, I’d say mostly for the better.
It’s less rigid now with all the bloggers and such, but conventional journalism for at least many decades aimed for a kind of faux objectivity. If there were a mainstream consensus on a given matter then that consensus was presented as factual. If there were some difference of opinion within the mainstream, then the two points of view (it was rare to acknowledge there could be more than two) were presented in an evenhanded manner to “let the reader (or viewer) decide.” Editorials could deviate from this, but they had to be clearly labeled as opinion pieces, and they still stayed within the mainstream. Non-mainstream positions—or even topics not regarded as important by the mainstream—were basically unthinkable. Meanwhile, stylistically there was little if any humor, metaphor, irony, obscenities, etc.
Also invariably stories were reported from the third person point of view, but it’s not as if that’s the only thing different about Thompson’s autobiographical reporting. He also violates pretty much all those other rules or customs of conventional journalism.
I say that’s mostly to the good, because those traditional restrictions—where there are certain things you’re not supposed to say and certain ways you’re not supposed to say even the things you are allowed to say—while allegedly put in place to maximize truth and objectivity and minimize bias and subjectivity, as often as not do the opposite.
When the truth lies outside the mainstream, when the “two sides” to a question don’t have equal merit, when something is so outrageous as to call for outraged language, then seeking and expressing truth requires deviating from what traditional journalists are trained to do.
So even when Thompson isn’t off on some tangent explaining how a bad acid trip rendered him unable to cover whatever he was supposed to be covering, his style of journalism is still to call ’em as he sees ’em, and to express unpopular truths.
His pieces that are closest to conventional journalism still often explore unconventional subjects. In the ’60s he wrote thoughtful, mostly straight pieces about such things as the Hell’s Angels, the beatnik culture, and the hippie culture. On an extended trip through South America, he got his information not from U.S. embassies and those hanging around upscale hotels and bars in the big cities frequented by reporters and officials, but from rebels, drug runners, and Indians.
In some cases he showed extraordinary courage. There is an article where he tells how he wished to learn more about some Columbian Indians living in a very obscure coastal area beyond any governmental control. There were only about 100 people there, whatever living they could make was primarily by smuggling and other illegal activity, and they had earned a reputation as a very suspicious and violent people. Not to mention they spoke no English, and of course he didn’t speak whatever their language was.
So he just showed up one day unannounced with his cameras and such, in the hopes that they’d open up to him and he could get a story out of it. Surprisingly they didn’t just kill him on sight, I’m guessing because they were just too stunned by his audacity to do so. They spent a few days getting drunk with him with some sort of crude liquor, and then sent him on his way.
(One thing that strikes me about that article is that it is less than three pages long. I certainly hope it’s an excerpt from something much longer. Risking your life so blatantly for three pages just seems disproportionate to me.)
Whether you agree with his lifestyle or his politics or his style of journalism, there’s no denying he’s a highly intelligent person and an excellent writer. Consider something like: “I had been in the Air Force once, and it had struck me then as being a clumsy experiment in mass lobotomy, using rules instead of scalpels.” To me it’s not only a delightfully funny way to word that point, but the point itself is quite accurate and important (and one of those things you’re not supposed to say).
It’s certainly a lot more common today for people—especially those with more hip publications—to practice journalism in roughly Thompson’s way than it was back when he was getting started, but it’s not common to pull it off anywhere near as well. For instance, Griftopia by Matt Taibbi (a Rolling Stone writer like Thompson, by the way) reads like Taibbi was heavily influenced by Thompson, and I like his style more than not, but lay it side by side with the essays in this book and to me there’s a noticeable difference in quality. Taibbi’s not bad, but he still has a way to go before he can write like the master.
Maybe it’s ironic at some level that the constant alcohol and drug anecdotes mostly don’t rub me the wrong way, and in fact are sometimes entertaining to me, as I don’t drink or do drugs, and have always been in some ways “anti” such things. I mean, all my life I feel like I’ve been surrounded by a culture that finds drunkenness and drug-addled behavior to be an endless source of amusement and even courageous taboo-busting, while I just sort of roll my eyes at such attitudes.
But for whatever reason I kind of give him a pass on that. Maybe it’s the very excess of it. His whole life seems to be spent one small misstep away from career suicide at best, and death or long term imprisonment at worst. Maybe I feel some strange admiration for that level of commitment, even when it’s a commitment to something so stupid. At the very least it’s attention-grabbing, whereas conventional levels of drug and alcohol abuse seem hopelessly mundane and mediocre to me.
I particularly enjoyed reading his stuff on Nixon and Watergate and the major events of his time, because it’s intriguing to go back and read about history when it wasn’t history but current events. It’s so, so hard to know how significant or insignificant an event will seem in retrospect, or what its long term consequences will be, yet writers make surprisingly confident pronouncements about such things.
Broadly speaking, I think people, including Thompson in this book, are apt to overestimate how big an impact something they’re living through will have, how fast change will come, and how positive that change will be. In some of his writings on the ’60s, you sense some form of positive revolution in the air, like people have changed to where they just will not put up with the injustice of business as usual. Then with Watergate he approvingly quotes George McGovern saying that Nixon’s self-destruction and resignation will cause such a backlash against all that he represented that the country will move farther faster in a positive direction than if McGovern had won the election and become president in 1973. In many of these essays of the time, you get the message that the vicious, mean-spirited, alliance-with-the-plutocrats style of conservative governance embodied by Nixon and his ilk has peaked, been destroyed by its own excess, and likely will never recover.
In hindsight that looks like a lot of wishful thinking. The Republicans came within an eyelash of retaining the presidency in 1976, and then they won the next three presidential elections after that. I’d say they and their ideology recovered quite quickly. Insofar as there was a backlash, it was less at those associated with Watergate and the Establishment, and more at those associated with the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s.
Thompson writes about how Nixon will be presented as a disgraced failure in the textbooks children read 300 years in the future, that he’ll be remembered only as a crook and a liar whose wrongdoing laid bare the ugliness of his conservative ideology and thereby rendered it unsustainable. In fact, after a tiny fraction of 300 years, we’re already at a point that I doubt more than 25% of high schoolers could even identify Richard Nixon beyond that he was a president, and conservative ideology is not only still around but is stronger and more odious than in Nixon’s day.
You can make a case that there has been some gradual enlightenment on a few social issues in recent decades, but if anything the country has gradually drifted farther to the right on the whole. The enlightenment of the ’60s didn’t change that. The Watergate-era realization that the government was run by a gang of criminals, literally, didn’t change that. Nor did later events like Iran-Contra, the savings and loan scandals and other capitalist crimes and disasters, or the launching of a full scale war on provably false pretenses.
As a rule of thumb, when it seems like people are finally waking up, and there’s a lot of talk about how “this changes everything” and “the world will never be the same,” expect little to change and expect the world to stay the same. The people will be back asleep soon enough.
That’s no accident. There are a huge number of people in the media, academia, politics, etc. who spend their entire professional lives functioning—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—as propagandists for those at the top. With time, with experience, all that happens is the powers that be become more skilled at countering any threats to them and at managing perceptions.
Periodically something big enough happens to expose their selfishness, incompetence, and lies to even the many who normally barely pay attention to such things—maybe Watergate, maybe their blowing up the economy to send it to its lowest point since the Depression—and in a stunningly short time they regroup and re-establish a bizarre situation where a sizable minority if not a majority of their victims vehemently defend them and repeat the propaganda they’ve been fed.
I’m not saying the American plutocracy will last forever, any more than a world dominated by hereditary monarchs lasted forever. But I am saying that its demise, or at least its significant softening, has seemed and will seem imminent countless times before it actually happens.
To me, Thompson is a kindred spirit in that he sees things from a moral point of view. Furthermore, our values overlap more than not, which further draws me to him. But he’s also one of those people who adopts a persona that superficially denies how much right and wrong matter to him. It’s like his lifestyle and writing style are chosen to make him seem like the farthest thing from some moralistic, preachy, goody goody obsessed with telling people what they’re doing wrong and what they could do better to be more like him.
So, instead of embodying a holier than thou attitude in expressing his values, he’s unabashed and self-deprecating about what a son of a bitch he is—a drunk, a drug abuser, a gun nut, a reckless person who takes irresponsible risks, a lawbreaker, a blatant violator of the ethics and customs of his chosen profession, inclined to associate with the dregs of society, insulting, offensive, and on and on.
Maybe I shouldn’t say “persona,” because that makes it sounds like he’s just pretending to be those things. Better to say he really is those things, and he’s being honest in presenting himself accordingly, if not in fact exaggerating those traits.
How can you think a nutty, self-absorbed character like that obsessed with where his next high is coming from is morally judging you, or be threatened or defensive about his doing so?
In fact, though, every page screams with his moral sensibility, his outrage over the phoniness, the injustice, the inhumanity of the world, his pain over what we are compared to what we could be. That’s why I can feel a connection with him, despite how vastly different we approach life in so many ways.
If you can come away from Thompson thinking only what a hilarious, entertaining party animal he is (or what an unfunny, obnoxious party animal he is), then you’re missing what makes him significant as a writer.
Especially since it manifests, or at least comes packaged with, an evolved moral and political sensibility that puts him usually on the same side as me, and I suppose in part because he presents it all in an articulate, engaging manner, I find much of his self-indulgent, free spirit, “won’t play by the rules” style appealing and admirable, and most of the rest of it at least tolerable.
But I won’t give him a pass on all of it. Sometimes his behavior doesn’t just fly in the face of the law or of the approval of polite society. It isn’t just incompatible with some kind of politically suspect “bourgeois values” or a Nurse Ratched-like love of order and conformity. Sometimes when he does things that would make mainstream or conservative folks denounce him as an asshole, it’s because he really is being an asshole.
I’m thinking mostly of when his antics directly hurt other people or put them at risk. When he drives over 100 MPH while hallucinating being attacked by bats on an acid trip, that isn’t just about him and whether it’s good or bad to take insane risks in order to more fully embrace and experience all aspects of life. That’s the kind of thing where he’s unjustifiably putting other people at risk. Driving under the influence is reprehensible behavior because of its disregard of the rights and well-being of others, regardless of whether you’re a famous writer and free spirit.
When he and a friend on a drug spree stop at a diner outside Las Vegas, blatantly insult the waitress and then respond to her angrily insisting they leave by pulling a knife on her and giving her a terrible fright, that’s shitty behavior. I don’t care if they’re doing it in a light spirit, or if it shows what lovable, non-conformist rogues they are, or if it makes for a supposedly funny anecdote for a book. It’s a cruel, hurtful thing to do to another human being.
I’m a Thompson fan, but not thereby blind to his flaws.
But certainly I appreciate what a terrific writer Thompson can be. Reading him I have more than my usual number of “I wish I had said that” moments where it feels like someone is articulating some of my own impressions much better than I’ve managed to. So I’ll close with such a passage, from his reporting on the Nixon-McGovern presidential race of 1972. I love the last paragraph especially, as reflecting roughly how I feel about the contemporary American left compared to the contemporary American right:
This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it—that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.
The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about “new politics” and “honesty in government,” is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.
McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.