Jonathan Yardley on 'Outlaw Journalist'
The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson
By William McKeen
Norton. 428 pp. $27.95
Hunter Stockton Thompson, who took his own life three years ago at the age of 67, was a superbly gifted and original prose stylist who wanted to be a novelist but, failing in that, settled for journalism. He was scarcely the first to follow that course, but similarities to others end just about there. While most failed novelists turn their talents to reportage or commentary or criticism, Thompson simply turned journalism on its head. He was frequently pigeonholed with Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and others among the founders during the 1960s of the New Journalism, but he was strictly a one-man band whose writing defied imitation or even parody.
He called it "gonzo," though the term didn't originate with him. William McKeen tells us in Outlaw Journalist that it was coined in 1970 by a friend of Thompson's named Bill Cardoso. After reading a magazine article by Thompson called "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," Cardoso told Thompson: "I don't know what . . . you're doing, but you've changed everything. It's totally gonzo." McKeen goes on to explain: " Gonzo. Perhaps derived from the French Canadian gonzeaux. The word had a couple of different meanings, but Bill Cardoso used it in the Boston-bar derivation, referring to the last man standing after a night of drinking. Gonzo had a nice ring."
Indeed it did, and Thompson happily embraced it for the remaining three-and-a-half decades of his certifiably wild and crazy life. That article, published in a now-defunct magazine called Scanlan's and accompanied by drawings by the British artist Ralph Steadman, "provided Hunter his epiphany," permitting him not merely to place himself at the center of his narrative -- that was rapidly becoming a commonplace of the New Journalism, usually in the service of narcissism rather than journalism -- but also to transform himself into an almost mythic character. "Praising the article," McKeen writes, "Tom Wolfe celebrated Hunter's 'manic, highly-adrenal first-person style.' Putting the writer center stage was not always a good idea, Wolfe said, but it worked because Hunter usually casts himself as a 'frantic loser, inept and half-psychotic, somewhat after the manner of Celine' and because much of the Derby description comes 'in the form of Celine-like fantasies he presents to the artist, Ralph Steadman, in conversation.' "
That Thompson's breakthrough came in an article about the Kentucky Derby was coincidental yet apt, because he was a native of Louisville whose childhood there had been happy -- even though he "was a difficult child" who from the outset "had issues with authority" -- and who kept in touch throughout his life with many of his boyhood friends and accomplices in juvenile rebellion. He was the oldest of Jack and Virginia Thompson's three sons. The family lived on the periphery of Louisville's Old Dixie aristocracy, leaving Hunter with ambiguous feelings toward wealth and social position that he was never able to shake. He turned into the classic American outsider, his nose pressed against the glass, half longing to be inside, half despising everything and everyone he saw there. It is a vantage point from which much of the best American fiction has been written -- for starters, take The Great Gatsby-- but though Thompson did write one novel, The Rum Diary, he drifted into journalism instead, by way of the Air Force.
He began as a sportswriter for the base newspaper at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida in 1956 and did well at it, but his problems with authority surfaced -- predictably -- and within a year his supervising colonel wrote: "The Airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy or personal advice and guidance. Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airman staff members. He has little consideration for military bearing or dress and seems to dislike the service and want out as soon as possible." He got his wish in November 1957 -- somewhat incredibly, he managed to pull off an honorable discharge -- and immediately headed for New York, beginning a pattern of only intermittently remunerative vagabond journalism that persisted throughout his life.
His first important step forward came in 1962, when he began a freelance relationship with the National Observer, a Sunday newspaper published under the aegis of the Wall Street Journal. Though it never managed to find an audience and eventually went under, in many respects it was a good newspaper, more open to distinctive writing than most established newspapers of the day. Thompson wrote a number of pieces for it from Latin America and then the States, and "took pride in being part of the publication," but for reasons that remain unclear he "stopped working for the Observer by the summer of 1965." He had made a bit of a name for himself as a writer, but also as difficult to deal with and frequently strung out on alcohol and/or the many drugs that became his treasured companions as his life progressed.
He was into LSD by the summer of 1965, mescaline by 1968, cocaine by 1973, and he was always into booze: "He drank a lot -- probably enough during a twenty-four-hour span to render a minor-league infield unconscious. But he could hold his liquor. Longtime friends could remember only seeing him truly out-of-control drunk two or maybe three times during the course of a forty-year friendship. His fans knew the character, not the man, and when they approached him, they often felt the need to affect being high if they weren't already. They had assumed Hunter would want them that way. But he hated sloppy, inarticulate drunks. He breakfasted on bloody marys and beer and drank Wild Turkey and Chivas by the tumbler, but he was rarely [drunk]."
If the National Observer was his first important outlet, he made his name and built his legend after he began writing for Rolling Stone in 1970. This was while the counterculture magazine was still young, still based in San Francisco, still noted primarily for "intelligent writing about popular music." By then in his early 30s, Thompson was older than many of the magazine's contributors and more connected to Bob Dylan than to the Rolling Stones, but he was wholly in tune with its rebellious spirit, and he had at last found a place where his evolving prose style -- wildly off-the-wall, intensely personal yet in no way narcissistic, laced with obscenities -- was not merely tolerated but applauded. In November 1971 Rolling Stone published the two long pieces that eventually became his best and most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and in the years to come most of his best work appeared there. He had a turbulent relationship with the magazine, especially its founding editor, Jann Wenner, but it was there that his collaboration with Ralph Steadman began and there that he metamorphosed from Thompson the journalist to Thompson the legend.
This occurred within the pages of the magazine and, much to Thompson's dismay, in newspapers all over the country that published Garry Trudeau's comic strip, "Doonesbury." In December 1974 Trudeau introduced "Uncle Duke," a "balding, aviator-shade-wearing Rolling Stone writer who hallucinated that he was seeing bats," which is exactly what Thompson does in the opening paragraph of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "For Hunter," McKeen writes, "it was a nightmare of celebrity coming true. . . . 'When you're a famous American writer, you don't think of things like being in the comic strips,' he said. 'Being a cartoon character in your own time is like having a second head.' " Eventually, though, he became imprisoned by this image, and as he wrote less and less, he let the image blend into reality. His first wife, Sandy, who probably knew and understood him better than anyone, got it right:
"He was a tortured tragic figure. I do not think that he was a great writer. I think he clearly had great potential, both as a writer and a leader. However, he fell -- dramatically and a very, very long time ago. Hunter wanted to be a great writer and he had the genius, the talent, and, early on, the will and the means. He was horrified by whom [sic] he had become and ashamed -- or I really should say tortured. He knew he had failed. He knew that his writing was absolutely not great. This was part of the torture. And yet, he could never climb back. The image, the power, the drugs, the alcohol, the money . . . all of it . . . he never became that great American writer he had wanted to be. Nowhere close. And he knew it."
This is an unsparing judgment, perhaps somewhat influenced by the menial role Sandy played throughout their marriage, but it is fair, and to his credit McKeen publishes it with obvious sympathy. A professor of journalism at the University of Florida, he is susceptible to moments of Hunter-worship -- his preface is an embarrassment -- but manages to tell Thompson's story in a straightforward way. Certainly, he gets it all in: the boozing and drugging, the histrionics, the womanizing, the violence, but also the intelligence, the loyalty, the inherent decency. Over the long haul, Thompson won't be much more than a footnote in American literary history, but in his day he set off plenty of explosions, and he was a lot of fun to watch. At his best, he was even more fun to read. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.