HEY RUBE

Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness: Modern History From the Sports Desk

By Hunter S. Thompson

Simon and Schuster. 246 pp. $23

Four years ago ESPN.com invited the redoubtable Hunter S. Thompson to write a regular column about sports, a natural subject for a journalist who calls himself "a sportswriter and a lifelong football addict." He's been doing that ever since, but such is the nature of life in these early years of the Internet -- an immense vacuum that sucks everything into instant oblivion -- that I had no idea of the column's existence until galley proofs of "Hey Rube" arrived. A quarter-million people are said to read Thompson's column online, or, to put it another way, there are probably about 290 million Americans who haven't a clue that it exists.

That's their loss. Thompson is a genuinely unique figure in American journalism, a superb comic writer and a ferociously outspoken social and political critic. Anything he writes is worth reading, even when it radiates serious signs of having been composed under the influence of something rather more hallucinating than office coffee. So at least Thompson would like us to believe, since spaced-out is the persona he adopted back in the 1960s and has lived off ever since. No doubt he's done his share of bad (and good) stuff, but my hunch is that in significant measure this is an act; you don't think as clearly as Thompson does or write as much as he does -- more than a dozen books to date, not to mention fugitive journalism and scads of letters -- in a state of perpetual, drug-induced nirvana.

A case can be made, in fact, that the drug that Thompson really gets high on is outrage. "Fear and loathing" has been his mantra for more than three decades, and these columns contain plenty of evidence that it's still what keeps him going. In his first ESPN piece, written in November 2000, he warned readers that "we are living in dangerously weird times now," and even though one senses that he's writing on autopilot, the theme is Thompson to the core. Two years later, with the aftershocks of the 2001 terrorist attacks still reverberating, he insisted that "we are living in unnaturally savage times, folks," and in the summer of 2003, with "that stupid, fraudulent" war in Iraq going from bad to worse for the Bush administration, his outrage peaked:

"The American nation is in the worst condition I can remember in my lifetime, and our prospects for the immediate future are even worse. I am surprised and embarrassed to be a part of the first American generation to leave the country in far worse shape than it was when we first came into it. Our highway system is crumbling, our police are dishonest, our children are poor, our vaunted Social Security, once the envy of the world, has been looted and neglected and destroyed by the same gang of ignorant, greed-crazed bastards who brought us Vietnam, Afghanistan, the disastrous Gaza Strip, and ignominious defeat all over the world."

How about that, sports fans? Not exactly the usual bill of fare at ESPN, which allowed the outspoken, opinionated Keith Olbermann to take a hike seven years ago and which does some of the stupider (as well as some of the smarter) sports programming on television. Presumably Thompson gets away with it because (a) he's Hunter S. Thompson, a nice byline that ESPN can dangle as evidence of its higher purposes, and (b) his columns are published in the relative anonymity of the Internet.

Thompson actually does write about sports for ESPN, though, and mostly in an amusing, eccentric way. In particular he writes about gambling, the side of American sports that broadcasters and sportswriters like to pretend doesn't exist even as everything they air and write feeds the gambling frenzy. After a particularly bad day betting on NFL games, Thompson wondered whether "the time has come to give up gambling" and immediately issued a thundering rejoinder: "What? No. That would be impossible. It would be like donating all my blood to a charity event. Without gambling, I would not exist."

There seems more than a little truth to that. The pages of "Hey Rube" are loaded with references to his gambling, much of which seems to be done at lickety-split speed as games evolve: bets on the next play, the next shot, the next timeout, whatever. Yet in his gambling, as in his working life, Thompson appears to be a more cautious, calculated player than his artfully designed persona suggests. "My own firm rule is that I MUST WIN TWO OUT OF THREE," he writes. "That is the Mandatory minimum for any gambler who plays with Real Money. Anything less is Unacceptable."

There's no doubt, though, that he's an avid and somewhat over-the-top sports fan. Early in the life of the column, he complained about "the dangerous thinning of the NFL talent pool" (being Thompson, he noted parenthetically that this is "a problem not totally unknown to the world of presidential politics"). In 2003 he forsook the San Francisco 49ers, "who have meant so much to my professional fortunes for so many years," and transferred his loyalties to the Oakland Raiders, kingpins of "the massive Raider Nation, which is beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and wackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single 'roof,' so to speak, anywhere in the English-speaking world." The Washington Redskins of 2001 were "doomed, lost like pigs in the wilderness -- a gang of squabbling losers with no pride and no shame and no hope at all of anything but failure for the next 20 years."

There you have it, pure and simple: sports fan. You don't need much of an imagination to see and hear Thompson, in front of the TV at his place in the Colorado mountains, screaming at the set and popping yet another cold one. Again, though, bear in mind that with Thompson things are always more complicated than they seem. This same ranting sports fan is also a careful observer of sports-world cant who pounces all over the sportscaster Brent Musburger for "the ignorant notion that any basketball player firing off a long three-point shot is shooting from 'downtown.' " The grammarian in Thompson marches to the fore:

" 'Going downtown' has more than one meaning -- from going to work at 66 Wall Street in New York to anal rape in Alcatraz -- but it always means going to a busy place, for good or ill. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says it's 'where the action is' -- a noisy, crowded place with many intersections & tall buildings & freaky looking strangers. . . . Downtown is where you score -- not somewhere out in the wilderness, where people are far apart & not much happens. You don't fire a long jump shot from Downtown, you fire it into Downtown."

There you have it: Beneath all the wild trappings of gonzo journalism, Thompson is a purist at heart. He is also "a Romantic by nature" with an acute memory: "My brain is covered with scar tissue. I was 22 when JFK was murdered, and I will never recover from it. . . . Never." That, make no mistake about it, is the real Hunter S. Thompson.