APOCALYPSE HAS COME and gone, and what will the psychedelic writers do now -- Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson? Did they flame out, like their decade? Their long rollercoaster sentences, whose art was to seem half out of control, caught the veerings of the '60's. It was a breathless time, no one could keep up -- take notes as you run, and stop every now and then to exclaim something like, "Just so!"
Mailer got there first, white negro and Aquarian, arrived on some mental spaceship to fight earth's devils. Wolfe was a still, white point in the Day-glo, calm in his ice-cream suit while everything else exploded, a human baked Alaska. Thompson came last and most extravagant, using Hawkeye Pierce's technique of homeopathic madness to outlast the time by outcrazying it. Did they capture the time so well that they were captured by it, and have nowhere to go? That may not be true of the other two; but things look bleak at the moment for "Doctor" Thompson.
Mailer is a hostage to the IRS; but he has risen from a dead career in the past. The '60s were just one of his incarnations. Wolfe has become an aviator groupie; but his treatment of Chuck Yeager shows he can be just as brilliant while scolding the '60s sensibility as he was in helping to create it. But Hunter Thompson, who created so many alternate personae in his own work, survives now mainly as the product of another wild imagination, Gary Trudeau's. He may be remembered only in the annotated Doonesbury books of the future.
But probably not. Reading this pretentious collection of Thompson's journalism (bulked out with excerpts from his full length books and with a useless, jumbled bibliography of articles by and about Thompson), I was reminded that all three of the psychedelic writers were less of their time than they seemed at the time. All three were trying to recreate the 60s as a second '20s. (Decades don't punch time clocks, of course; the '60s really ended the day Nixon resigned.) The lost generation had to be revived to undergo another crackup, with drugs instead of booze setting the pace, with harried but graceful men enacting parables of courage-- to be celebrated, now, with verbal extravagance instead of Hemingway's economy. Thompson seems to admire Fitzgerald more than Hemingway, but Fitzgerald's sport was a team one-- football. The athletes who fascinate Mailer and Wolfe and Thompson are individual performers-- boxers, hunters, motorcyclists, test pilots, car racers. These have taken the place of Hemingway's bullfighters and big game fishermen-- when Thompson does not go straight back to the source:
"The whole idea of fishing, it seemed to me, was to hook a thrashing sea monster of some kind and actually boat the bastard. And then eat it."
As Indians were said to eat a brave foe's heart, to ingest his courage. Thompson's fabled cabin in Colorado, full of heavy artillery, is drugged-up Nick Adams country, as was that of the climactic bear hunt in Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam?
Given their literary past, the psychedelic writers lit their decade very selectively. The principle of selection was Hemingway's-- who are the metaphysical risk-takers of the moment? Theirs was a late night male world, mobile, full of two fisted drinkers (and three headed smokers and poppers). Its politics was an extension of sport as a metaphor for death (though they all would mock Richard Nixons's equation of politics with sports). Thompson, the Air Force dropout, celebrated test pilots as Mailer and Wolfe did astronauts. Recondite knowledge of drug dealing substituted for Harry Morgan's knowledge of the rum routes. Boredom became a kind of metaphysical obtuseness, stimulus the source of Light. One had to flirt with ultimate crackup to get a shot at the penultimate breakthrough-- pilot heaven out beyond the speed of sound, heading for the Black Hole.
Mailer did it not only first but best -- and was most frank about replaying the Hemingway scenario.His "white negro" essay internalized the Hemingway safari, turned Harlem pub crawls of the prohibition era into a probing of cultural boundaries, stared from an only apparent nearness at the eerie "native" beauty and voodoo. The civil rights movement would make that early space probe look condescending; it was, in fact, prophetic -- of all the later misunderstandings as well as the attempts at knowledge. (Thompson, who grew up in Louisville, did a sociological tract on integration for The Reporter in 1963; but made his urban safaris with Chicanos, especially the mythic Oscar Acosta. By the time Wolfe caught up with Mexican-Americans and the Black Panthers, he was seeing Yellow Perils and Lennie Bernstein's insides.)
But Mailer, strong where Hemingway had been, is weak where he was, in humor, especially about himself. Lacking that, apocalypse always slips toward Godzilla movie. Wolfe has humor, of the three-cushion-shot variety, irony doubling endlessly back. That requires a certain distance, at war with Wolfe's own participatory ideal. His calm irritates Thompson, most of whose techniques were nonetheless invented by Wolfe (including the pretense to be printing nothing but one's notes). Who wrote this sentence?
"Hey -- that's me the adrenalin is hitting, I am this white human sitting in a projectile heading amid a mass of clotted humans toward a white Angora stuffed goddam leopard-dash Pekingese freaking cat -- kill that damned Angora -- Jolt! -- got me -- another micrometer on the old adrenals -- "
It sounds like pure Thompson but was done by Wolfe in The Pump House Gang. Even some of Wolfe's stylish-monster drawings aim at the same effect as Ralph Steadman's illustrations for the Fear and Loathing books.
But Thompson uses Wolfe without the distance; he wants to get the ice-cream suit dirty. He issues an omnidirectional barroom challenge. And his fantasies draw more directly on '60s writers like Terry Southern than the others do -- even Mailer in Why Are We in Vietnam? Thompson has no grand theories on the scale of Mailer's manicheism or Wolfe's anti-chic chic. He is not here to explain but to feel, and the few times he gets serious -- e.g., in offering campaign advice to George McGovern -- he becomes silly in a way that his nightmare-journalism never is. Gonzo is not Godzilla. In a way, Thompson's art is purer than the other two's (with the exception of Wolfe's pure dream-coverage of Ken Kesey). Thompson never preaches. But that means he never instructs. He amuses; he frightens; he becomes a dandy at flirting with doom. But he is a good way of revisiting Nick Adams country; and even if he never does anything else, his achievement is substantial.