Archives For gonzo
One mustn’t forget, in looking at the works of Hunter S Thompson, to go back and visit his first book, which was ‘lost’ for decades until its eventual publication in 1998. This is different from Thompson’s other books in that it was a genuine attempt at a novel, with a plot and stories that didn’t necessarily happen to the author in real life, but were merely inspired by his surroundings. The book predates Gonzo and Thompson’s journalistic innovations, and comes from the period in his life when he was just another writer, trying to cut it working for a newspaper, and trying to write novels like his idols – Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Yet, even in those early days, Thompson was mapping out his future. According to David Hamilton’s memoir of his meeting with Thompson in South America, the young man was talking about journalists as participants and even actors, helping the events around them to unfold, rather than noting them as an outside.
One can certainly see the early signs of what Thompson’s writing would become, though it never began to peak for another decade. As William Kennedy said,
The tools Hunter S. Thompson would use in the years ahead — bizarre wit, mockery without end, redundant excess, supreme self-confidence, the narrative of the wounded meritorious ego, and the idiopathic anger of the righteous outlaw — were all there in his precocious imagination in San Juan.
Although one could claim any Thompson book to be a novel, due to the dubious claims and distorted versions of true events, The Rum Diary is almost entirely fictional. It is, however, based on the world around Thompson at a certain time. In 1960, prompted by a strange friendship with William Kennedy, and the appearance of his friend Bob Bone, he took a job at a magazine in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The magazine, however, didn’t turn out to be ‘the Sports Illustrated of the Caribbean’ that Thompson expected, and he was trapped in Puerto Rico, writing about bowling, for bowlers. He was not happy.
Thompson found himself living in a beach shack, in some strange paradise. However, the work was demeaning. Thompson’s ego at this point in his life was incredible. He wrote intolerably high-minded letters to publishers and editors, and yet was somehow employed by a low-class bowling magazine, doing nothing more than jamming bowlers’ names into print.
They were introducing bowling to Puerto Rico. I had to go out and cover bowling every night in San Juan. Bowling was going big. Bowling alleys were popping up everywhere. What could you say about bowling?…But about half my work was making sure every bowler in San Juan got his name in the magazine…ever since then I’ve hated the world of bowling.
To keep himself interested, Thompson was writing mediocre travel pieces for newspapers across America, and wrote a few pieces for bigger publications. In between, he earned work as a male model.
Soon, however, Thompson persuaded his old friend Paul Semonin to come to San Juan. Semonin landed a job at the Star, and rented a better place with Thompson, outside the city. Soon Sandy Dawn Conklin, Thompson’s common-law wife, was living in the crowded beach hut. She was Semonin’s ex-girlfriend, and the couple’s nudity and outward sexuality made for an uncomfortable stay.
During this period, Thompson published another piece, this time for his hometown newspaper, which had for the duration of his stay listed him as Caribbean correspondent. The article was about Semonin, describing him as a wandering Louisville son in the Caribbean, honing his skills as a painter. However, the article was completed fabricated, in no way endorsed by the subject, and contained quotes from Semonin that had never been uttered. Semonin was enraged.
Soon after this, Semonin and Thompson were arrested after a dine-and-dash attempt, and spent part of a night in jail, before being rescued by Kennedy. It was all Thompson’s fault, and he played out the whole affair as a theatrical farce, calling the police Nazis, and again enraging his friend.
By the time that Thompson escaped Puerto Rico (through an attempt to get to Europe, but only making it as far as Barbados) he had the idea of a novel in his head. The idea resulted in The Rum Diary. This novel drew heavily from his experiences in Puerto Rico, but was not entirely autobiographical.
He wrote the novel between California and Colorado in the years following his departure from the island, but it was only following the success of his collections of letters that Thompson thought to look back at his old works, at his fiction. When he did, he found The Rum Diary as a thousand-page manuscript. He cut six hundred pages and the result was a pleasant surprise for him and for the critics, who were expecting an embarrassment.
But how much of The Rum Diary was truth, and how much fiction? Ralph Steadman, his old friend and the other half of Gonzo, said that, ‘It was him again, doing an assignment in Puerto Rico, doing small-time journalism.’ Indeed, it’s easy to see that the surroundings in the book match other accounts, and the character of Paul Kemp doesn’t differ too greatly from that of Hunter S Thompson, but this was a time when Thompson was a young writers with his sights set firmly on writing novels, and his life acted as inspiration. Perhaps The Rum Diary is a novel like On the Road was a novel, just a cover for a twisted reality. Or perhaps it was indeed a novel in the tradition sense, and Thompson’s imagination had been set into action by his experiences as a struggling journalist.
The novel starts with a description of the setting and background, and quickly moves into what is effectively the story of Paul Kemp’s departure from New York. This doesn’t exactly fit with the story of Thompson’s departure, but it’s possible to see Thompson in the protagonist as he speaks in quick, sharp bursts of angry speech. “You rotten old bastard,” tells an old man after the guy almost sits on Kemp’s typewriter. One hardly needs to stretch one’s imagination to see any incarnation of Thompson in this situation, responding in that manner.
When Kemp arrives in San Juan, to write for the San Juan Daily News, we are presented with a deviation from the truth, in that Thompson clearly arrived for a job at El Sportivo. But this is what The Rum Diary is. It is a novel heavily influenced by Thompson’s time in San Juan, but not specifically about it. It is a re-imagining of the period.
Soon Kemp is talking with Bob Sala, the staff photographer, who asks the newcomer why he came. ‘A man could do worse than the Caribbean,’ Kemp explains. Sala disagrees, and soon the novel departs from the brief glimpse at paradise, and enters the murky world of professional journalism. Kemp realises he has walked in on a bunch of drunks, with the good writers and good people dropping like flies.
From there on the novel details the racial tensions that Thompson experiences, and the run-ins with the law. Sex is thrown into the deal, whereas it seems to be missing from so many of Thompson’s books. This was clearly inspired by Thompson’s relationship with Conklin during her time inSan Juan.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is now generally considered a work of fiction. It is the work for which Hunter S Thompson is best known, for which he receives the greatest praise and parody, and about which the most debate exists. It’s the book that inspired a generation of wannabe Gonzo writers, sent idiots armed with quotations to hassle Thompson wherever he went, and made the author a public enemy and the biographer of modern America. It was his On the Road. None of his other books contained such excess, madness and brilliance. He incriminates himself, sends each and every reader into shock and fits of uncontrollable laughter, and sums up the death of hope for the American Dream as eloquently as any great writer.
It bugged Thompson to see idiotic kids running about in Hawaiian shirts, sun hats, sunglasses, smoking cigarettes from long holders, pushing their poor imitations on MySpace forums and quoting passages from FLLV about bats and drugs… Suspiciously, only the quotes used in that unfairly derided movie starring Johnny Depp… It’s the book that hardcore Thompson fans pretend is their least favourite of his, but which was deservedly the book that earned Thompson his place in the canon of Twentieth Century American literature.
The creation of the book came with Thompson’s attempt to write an expose on the death of Ruben Salazar. In order to interview his source, attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, the two escaped the racially heated tension of Los Angeles and went to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 for Sports Illustrated. The job was meant to be a simple process of writing copy to accompany a series of photos, but Thompson began writing notes for a book about the death of the American Dream. The Salazar piece was written for Rolling Stone, while Thompson wrote the manuscript for Fear and Loathing in his spare time. Sports Illustrated ‘aggressively rejected’ Thompson’s article on the Mint 400, which by the time he submitted it, had spiralled to ten times the desired word count.
The best way to understand the book is to read Thompson’s Jacket Copy for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, as published in his collection, The Great Shark Hunt. Here Thompson describes his views on the book, stating the result was ‘a failed experiment in gonzo journalism.’ However, this doesn’t mean that Thompson necessarily viewed the book as a failure, but rather that he envisioned the literary genre of Gonzo, set out its principles, and then failed to achieved what he’d set out to accomplish. He wanted to record events exactly in his notebook, and then publish the notebook, much like he claimed to have done with the ‘Kentucky Derby’ piece. However, he ended up editing and writing frantically, and the result was the book.
The statement that the book was ‘a failed experiment in gonzo journalism’ implies that he intended the book as purely journalistic, but that it failed. Whether it failed as journalism or as his particular and intended form of journalism is unclear. However, he precedes the statement of Gonzo failure with musings about Faulkner’s notion of good fiction being more true than journalism. Thompson argues that both fiction and journalism are ‘artificial categories’, and then gives up trying to explain, resorting to an explanation of his own hybrid theory of Gonzo. Certainly, the mention of Faulkner’s idea is a suggestion that perhaps Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was more a novel than a work of journalism, but that given the subject of the novel was the end of the drug decade and the American Dream, then the loosely autobiographical nature of the text qualifies the novel to a status of accurate depiction more appropriate and comprehensive than any work of pure journalism could have achieved.
So there we have the story of a journalist failing to report his story, written by a journalist failing to report his story, with the result being a novel more accurate than any journalism, and taking into account, and beautifully describing the state of the era and the death of an idea…
So then Thompson accurately described a generation, a time, an event, and a host of ideas. But the book itself was about the story of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo, based on Thompson and Acosta, going to Vegas to cover the Mint 400. How much of their bizarre and illegal actions actually occurred?
Certainly, the framework of the book was invented during Thompson’s rewriting of the original notes that he believed would be published raw and unedited as his intended version of Gonzo. Whereas he wanted everything as it happened, jotted down and accurate, he later resorted to changing the chronology of the events, having over a month of action crammed into a few days. For example, the race and the narcotic convention took place over a month apart, with the Mint 400 starting on Sunday 20th March, 1970, and the convention on 25th April. However, certain truths do hold up to scrutiny, as Debbie Reynolds indeed played the Desert Inn the weekend of the race. And his description of the topless dancers at the Circus Circus holds up to historical study, too. Thompson later stated, in his Rolling Stone interview with P.J. O’Rourke, that time in the novel was unclear and insignificant, and that moving the two events closer together really didn’t matter.
It’s very possible that Thompson invented much of the action and dialogue in the book, as any novelist would, to convey the ideas he wanted to convey and to entertain the reader. Two drug-addled maniacs on the loose in a city of people as depraved and ignorant as the maniacs certainly sets an interesting premise for an indictment of Las Vegas, and of modern American greed and affluence. At the same time Thompson was having his characters live out the dying days of the hippy generation, when drug use was widespread, and by having his characters embody the hedonistic madness, he could pass comment on the death of the sixties idealism.
Yet knowing what Thompson was like as man, it’s hard to believe everything that happened was fictional. Indeed, Thompson himself has never claimed the work to be entirely factual, but it was always a given that he used language to make things sound a little more exciting. He was notorious for showing off and getting in trouble, and while he probably created many of the incidents as foregrounding for the espousing of ideas, it’s unlikely that much was created solely in his head. In the BBC documentary, Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, he says: Raoul Duke ‘was a vehicle for quotations nobody else would say… that was me really talking.’
Getting back to Thompson’s own explanation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s again hard to take anything as definite truth. The piece was written some six months after writing Fear and Loathing, and that was back in the days before fame and the security of being respected. Thompson’s credentials then relied on his talent, his intelligence, and his bad-boy reputation. It was the insanity that sold the copies, and the genius that got the reviews. Yet those were dangerous times, and admitting entirely to the actions contained within the book would have been foolish. He never denied nor fully owned up to what allegedly happened in Vegas. What he writes is about having fun in Las Vegas, suggesting strongly that he did do all the things Raoul Duke did, without directly reference any specific action. However, he then states ‘Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true.’ This suggests either that the work was so obviously fictional and barely based on any form of truth that it would be idiotic call it journalism, or, more likely, that it would be foolish to own up to the realities of the text, but that Thompson didn’t mind implying that what happened accurately depicted.
Even twenty-five years on, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson is coy with his explanations of ‘the Vegas book.’ ‘”A work of the imagination” was what [Random House editor] Jim Silberman came up with. Of course, it didn’t stick. We went to “nonfiction,” which led to it being categorised as “sociology.” As far as I was concerned, I was writing what happened to me in Las Vegas. It was just in the gonzo thinking, taking it one step further.’
Certainly he sought some infamy after writing the text, first chastising the editors of Sports Illustrated for passing up his piece, telling them they had ‘set in motion a fantastic mushroom… When you see the fireball, remember that it was all your fault.’ Then he told the story of his rejection, repeatedly calling it ‘aggressive’ and changing the alleged desired word count and the number he supposedly sent the editors.
Thompson then sent his manuscript to Tom Wolfe, telling him it was largely written in ‘an all-night drink/drugs frenzy’ and later edited together in a hotel. Thompson then informed Silberman that he was not on drugs while writing anything to do with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and that the book was rather ‘a very conscious effort to simulate drug freakout… I didn’t really make up anything – but I did, at times, bring situations & feelings I remember from other scenes to the reality at hand.’ This is perhaps the most telling and convincing explanation of the composition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as it allows us to combine the knowledge that we have of Thompson – that he was a crazed drug fiend and a professional and intelligent writer. He was professional enough to produce a book drawing upon his drug experiences as a front for exploring the Death of the American Dream, a theme he had been trying to write a book about for years. In the end, the chaos of the story became significant in itself, and one must wonder whether Thompson deliberately created or recounted the madness as a reflection upon society, or the loss of any meaning in that still-chased fantasy. Bruce-Novoa, claiming that Thompson’s work was essentially fiction, stated, ‘Gonzo fiction becomes a metaphor for the chaos of the American dream… [it] is fiction at work to produce that “truer reality” Faulkner sought.’ John Hellmann thought similarly of the comedy of the book: ‘The exposure of American values as self deceptions, has so long been typical of modern American literature, the search for those ideals can no longer be taken seriously.’ In other words, perhaps Thompson wrote his ridiculous parodies and comedies as a mockery, not necessarily on a person or group of people, but rather of the American Dream and American values.
Drugs certainly are what gained Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas its notoriety. Those who know nothing of his work are aware of the book and the film and all the illegal substances. Yet only Thompson and Acosta knew the truth behind the story in regards drugs. We can pick apart names and places and dates, but the drugs are something different, and we are pretty much reliant upon later interviews with Thompson to gain and insight into how much of it was true.
In one sense, it’s all true, in as much as the book is about Thompson looking at the world around him, with a head full of drugs. His perceptions may have included hallucinations, but he recorded them as accurately as he could, and in that sense, what he saw was reflected in the book. He may have used comedy and exaggeration, but he wrote about what he saw and thought.
But did he take what he said he took, and does it matter? No, it probably doesn’t matter because he used drugs as a device. Indeed, they were instrumental in the creation of the book, but also a literary tool. Thompson claimed drug logic took him from LA to Las Vegas, propelled the story as one long act of drug logic, and then helped and hindered him in writing the manuscript. They provided the plot and the style of narrative. They acted as a view to the counterculture, and as a way of highlighting the nature of the non-drug taking world.
The important thing in Hunter’s life, actually, is seeing that great country… go down the drain. The drugs play a part in it, it’s only another way of twisting the mental image… Maybe he needed something to speed himself up, to keep going, I mean in a way as a kind of dedication, just in order to see what he wanted to see.
If we are to believe that Thompson and Acosta took massive quantities of various substances during their trip, which we should, then that brings us to the question of whether or not Thompson accurately reflected upon the experience. He told O’Rourke, in the Rolling Stone interview, that remembering and adequately describing a drug experience was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.
This interview, ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’ allows us perhaps the reliable source of information about book from the author, as so much time had elapsed since its publication that Thompson really had nothing to prove. He was established and successful, and had nothing to hide nor gain in revealing the truth. Whereas in the ‘Jacket Copy’ piece, he wished to boost his reputation, but also had to avoid bringing the wrath of the law upon himself and Acosta, here Thompson discusses the circumstances of its conception without such motivation.
When discussing how much was true and how much was fabricated, Thompson mentions ‘imaginary alligators’. Obviously such things were hallucinations, but they were, as O’Rourke comments, ‘real imaginary.’ That is to say, what Thompson saw may not actually have been there, but he saw them nonetheless, and wrote about them. Therefore he accurately and truthfully recorded a trip. His thoughts were wild and absurd, but he really did think them.
The actual physical drugs, as mentioned earlier, probably existed, but we must consider how much Thompson exaggerated or hid, and how important this is to the text. If he exaggerated for theatrical or comical effect, and the drugs were merely a device, then it’s not that important, but would certainly push the labelling of the book closer to the fiction category. But it’s hard to say for sure what exactly was consumed.
The book famously begins with unrepentant drug use, and soon sees the description of the drugs allegedly consumed throughout:
We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
Thompson follows this description with the claim that all of it was collected in one night of furious driving around Los Angeles. Knowing Thompson through his work and the testimony of those that knew him, it’s easy to believe that he could have owned and consumed all of this, but it’s harder to believe that it was all gathered in one night. This claim sounds more like a method of setting up the story – an early introduction to the carnage and depravity. Whether it’s true or not, we know from reading this that the protagonists are heavy drug users, and in some kind of rush.
Thompson liked to set himself as a device within his writing, whether as a pillar of relative normality in Hell’s Angels or a lost and confused reporter in ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it seems that he took a role similar to that of ‘The Kentucky Derby’ and added more drugs to reflect upon the world around him and the death of something that had for a long time been mired in drug talk. The drugs worked for him, and although he may not have advocated them to others, they were an essential component of his greatest book.
One of his most famous drug references was the passage in Fear and Loathing with adrenochrome. To see the importance of Thompson’s description upon the history of the drug, and the relative lack of knowledge surrounding it, one must simple Google it. There is very little known about the substance, and it remains uncontrolled in the United States. According to Terry Gilliam, director of the movie, adrenocrome was an invention by Thompson, and consequently both the book and movie portray a fictional drug. However, unknown to Gilliam, but presumably known to Thompson, the drug exists. Its effects, however, are known, and the method of its production is fictionalised in both the book and the movie. For a start, adrenochrone is produced not through the extraction of a human pineal gland, but rather through the oxidation of epinephrine. The effects of adrenochrome are also debated, as some scientists believe it to be hallucinogenic and others don’t. Perhaps Thompson heard of the drug through Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.
 Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (Picador: London, 1979) p. 114
 F. Andrew Taylor, The City: In Search of Thompson’s Vegas, from vegas.com, 1997
 O’Rourke, P.J., ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’, Rolling Stone, November, 1996
 Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood
 Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt p. 116
 O’Rourke, ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’, Rolling Stone
 Back of ’72 book
 Bruce-Novoa, J., ‘Fear and Loathing on the Buffalo Trail’ MELUS 6.4 (1979) p. 43
 Hellmann, J., ‘Journalism and Parody’ p. 82
 Steadman talking in Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood
 ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’
 Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
 Gilliam, T., ‘Director’s Commentary’, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
 MacCarthy, Chim, Ind. Paris 55,435(1946)
Ruben Salazar was killed by a police officer on August 29, 1970. The journalist was killed in unusual circumstances on the day of the National Chicano Moratorium march and rally against the Vietnam War, and soon became somewhat of a martyr for the repressed community.
Hunter Thompson covered the story for Rolling Stone, in the article, ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’. This article is the first real introduction of Oscar Zeta Acosta, and it was during the writing that Thompson and Acosta took their famous trip to Las Vegas, which resulted in the novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.
‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’ is all too often overlooked by fans of Hunter S Thompson. It doesn’t really conform to the stereotypical Thompson piece of writing that those who’ve only read the famous books will know. Thompson appears in the book, with Acosta, but there is little in the way of goofing around. It’s not quite Gonzo, and it’s not as wild and crazy as what Thompson was known for, but ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’ might well be the best piece of muckraking journalism that Thompson ever managed to assemble.
The story appealed to Thompson, unsurprisingly, because of the sense of hopelessness and injustice perpetrated by the authorities. He said the story had ‘all the proper hooks for outrage’. Thompson had never been able to sit silently while such things happened, and this case seemed to him to be a great opportunity to expose evil deeds. However, it may come as a shock to some readers to see Thompson striving always for the truth, rather than taking the sense of injustice and using his words to convey it. He never gets fully behind the Chicano claim that the white authorities were silencing a Hispanic reporter, and he doesn’t necessarily try to support Acosta’s claims. Instead, he lays them out and confirms or denies them, adopting the technique he used in Hell’s Angels. As a result, the article takes the form of an obituary, an investigation, and a study of the violence and racial tensions prevalent in the Chicano areas of Los Angeles at the time. Consequently, whilst Thompson does manage to take his usual shots at the police and the media, he casts a critical eye in the search of truth rather than mocking and accusing his enemies. He takes the police accounts and discredits them, and although he goes into detail in regards the charges of the militant Chicano community, he does not necessarily take their arguments as truth.
The result is a serious piece of journalism with elements of Gonzo inserted for mild comic relief. Thompson remains the narrator and a participant, but unlike ‘The Temptation of Jean-Claude Kily’ and ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, in ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’, Thompson takes a much harder approach. Obviously his contempt for injustice saw him strive for something more than the thrown-together madness of his recent work, as he returned somewhat to the style of his South American reportage.
While he does come clean about his prejudices against the police and his scepticism over the death of Salazar, as well as his sympathies towards the Chicano cause, Thompson refuses to jump on the conspiracy, and eventually comes to a conclusion that neither the militants nor the authorities were entirely correct in their claims.
By offering his prejudices up front, Thompson is employing a technique that will be explored in the second part of this book, as frequently applied in his political writing. He states his position and shatters the idea of objective journalism. The reader knows that what follows is biased, and must then approach it differently. When an outrageous claim is made, perhaps it is not a fact, but rather a method of conveying an understanding of the subject. Nothing can be taken literally.
In ‘Strange Rumblings in Aztlan’, though, this technique is carefully applied, whereas in his later writings, it is used to a more ruthless effect. Here, Thompson states his opinions and seeks a truth that he may not want to discover. He makes himself vulnerable as a reporter, but somehow more honest. The reader knows Thompson’s opinions, but is also presented with alternatives, and consequently can come to a conclusion different to that of the author. He portrays himself as flawed and human, unlike the journalists of supposedly objective journalism, who purport to having all the facts. Instead, Thompson is a ‘frantic loser’ and troublemaker, searching for the truth, and this helps to draw the reader into the search as well.
Nonetheless, Thompson’s conclusion is shocking. Rather than his wild assertions about Nixon, the government and the media, he provides a conclusion that blends his feelings with the facts in a last attempt to search for the real truth.
Ruben Salazar couldn’t possibly have been the victim of a conscious, high-level cop conspiracy to get rid of him by staging an “accidental death.” The incredible tale of half-mad stupidity and dangerous incompetence on every level of the law enforcement establishment was perhaps the most valuable thing to have come from the inquest. Nobody who heard that testimony could believe that the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department is capable of pulling off a delicate job like killing a newsman on purpose. Their handling of the Salazar case – from the day of the his death all the way to the end of the inquest – raised serious doubts about the wisdom of allowing cops to walk around loose on the street. A geek who can’t hit a 20 foot wide ceiling is not what you need, these days, to pull off a clean first-degree murder.
This has the hallmarks of a Gonzo text – most notably when Thompson refers to a police officer as a ‘geek’ – and it is simply Thompson’s opinion, but it is the result of a long and honest search for the truth in a complex murder investigation. Rather than rave about the evil of the authorities, Thompson reflects upon his exploration of the story by questioning the intelligence of the police in dealing with the killing, which one can hardly dispute.
*The following is the first in a series of columns by Beatdom editor, David S. Wills, concerning the mix of fact and fiction in the work of Hunter S. Thompson.
Hunter S Thompson began writing at a young age, imitating his heroes and honing his own style. He worked as a journalist, got in trouble, travelled the world, got fired, made friends, made enemies, failed at writing novels, and then wrote Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. It began as an article written for The Nation, May 17th 1965, entitled ‘Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders,’ and it was considered the first honest portrayal of the Hell’s Angels in any major publication. The article drew praise and book offers, and Thompson was persuaded by Random House to spend the next year living with the Hell’s Angels, writing about their lives. The result was the book that made Thompson’s name.
Although it was ‘a world most of us would never dare encounter,’ Thompson careened into the realm of the Hell’s Angels with unnatural vigour. Where others would have been afraid of men who were renowned for their violence, Thompson brought them into his home, with Sandy and Juan hiding in the bedroom, warning them that he ‘didn’t go much for fist-fighting but preferred to settle his beefs with a double-barrelled 12-gauge shotgun.’ He introduced himself to the Hell’s Angels through an Angel/reporter, Birney Jarvis, who worked for the San Francisco Chronicle. Thompson immediately set down his objective, to determine the truth behind the myth: ‘I heard some bad things about you. Are they true?’
That was his aim: to determine, and report, the truth about the most feared motorcycle gang in America. The resulting article drew enough praise to earn him a book deal, and the book confirmed Thompson as a major American writer, allowing him to go on and write the rest of his bibliography.
It’s easy to see in Hell’s Angels the origins of Gonzo, and one might argue that it is indeed a Gonzo text. However, it was a well researched and brilliant demonstration of New Journalism more anything one could label a literary genre unto itself. It’s clear to see in the book the presence of the reporter as a part of the story, but far more obviously as a device than a protagonist.
Thompson appears as the ‘I’ in the article, but doesn’t focus on his actions. Rather, he is an observer, playing the role of a reporter, watching and hanging back, collecting notes and conducting interviews with the subjects of the text. In the book he was far more involved in the action, giving the reader someone sensible to relate to, when alienated by the depravity of the bikers. The result is a carefully observed act of journalism that reads like journalism, only with the hallmarks of Gonzo dropped in here and there…
For example, we have the use of cuttings, clippings and references to other texts and sources of information concerning the subject, which are dropped in to make the book not only a journalism-prose hybrid, but throwing in an element of cultural criticism, giving a greater impression of society’s perception of the Hell’s Angels. In the book, Thompson takes these sources and attempts, through real reporting, to deny or confirm them, thus getting at the truth behind the angels. Included are police reports and both truthful and fallacious media accounts, which shine a critical light on society’s role in creating the image of the Hell’s Angels. Thompson is providing the reader with a cross-section of America and its opinions, while giving an insider’s view, providing an accurate all-round depiction of the subject of his work.
Therefore, we clearly have a book that leans far more towards hard-fact reporting than Gonzo’s ambiguity. Nonetheless, there are elements of fantasy, of wishful thinking, and the application of a collective voice for the Hell’s Angels, whereby the statements of several members would be spoken by one imaginary speaker. And with these features, the book’s journalistic integrity becomes somewhat more debatable.
An example of something that is hard to prove or disprove, but which shows Thompson’s tendency towards misrepresentation of the facts in order to get at the truth, would be in the fantastic violence of the book. It is easy to believe that the Hell’s Angels were violent; the evidence is irrefutable. But merely stating this fact is not enough. Thompson’s portrayal of violence is cartoon-like. In order to convey the lack of care with which members shed or drew blood, the beatings were over-the-top and unbelievable, with badly victims getting up and walking away. Indeed, part of the fear of the gang was in the fact that ‘they inhabit a world in which violence is as common as spilled beer.’ In chapter twenty-one, a ‘black Golith’ is beaten horrifically by the Hell’s Angels, but keeps getting up. The whole fight is theatrical and yet it gets across an accurate impression of the disregard they had for brutality. Perhaps these ridiculous fight scenes are the equivalent of Thompson’s collective voice technique, with several events condensed into one for the sake of the narrative.
Instead of quoting dozens of individual Angels, Thompson will use one voice to reflect the statements of many. This could be viewed as compromising the reliability of having one source state one fact, but keeps the narrative flowing quickly. We have to assume that Thompson’s familiarity with the group allowed him to mimic their speech and blend statements together, rather than just fabricate what sounded better for the story. Indeed, the collective voice sounds remarkably similar to the individual voices.
This, in effect, was what the Hell’s Angels had been saying all along. Here is their version of what happened, as told by several who were there:
‘One girl was white and pregnant, the other was colored, and they were with five colored studs. They hung around our bar–Nick’s Place on Del Monte Avenue–for about three hours Saturday night, drinking and talking with our riders, then they came out to the beach with us–them and their five boyfriends. Everybody was standing around the fire, drinking wine, and some of the guys were talking to them–hustling ’em, naturally–and soon somebody asked the two chicks if they wanted to be turned on–you know, did they want to smoke some pot? They said yeah, and then they walked off with some of the guys to the dunes. The spade went with a few guys and then she wanted to quit, but the pregnant one was really hot to trot; the first four or five guys she was really dragging into her arms, but after that she cooled off, too. By this time, though, one of their boy friends had got scared and gone for the cops–and that’s all it was.’
Another method that is rare to see within a work purporting to be journalism is the author’s evident fascination with Biblical and historical imagery. There are in the text some brilliant uses of Thompson’s trademark literary mechanism: the use of language to imply what facts could not accurately convey.
Hell’s Angels opens with an image, beautifully and terrifyingly presented, of a motorcycle gang menacingly riding through the open roads of America on Labor Day. Thompson uses punctuation to string fragments of an image into one dirty great presentation, as he lists names and places, joining them with over-the-top metaphors and similes, eventually leaving the reader with no doubt of what the Hell’s Angels were all about, and only a page into the book.
Like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given.
With descriptions like this threaded into a piece of journalism, which includes serious interviews and reports of events, one can see a more subtle application of Gonzo styling. Surely in objective journalism it is utterly inappropriate to compare a group of men on bikes to historical monsters and suggest that they’re alcoholic rapists… But it’s only a suggestion, and Thompson was planting his seeds of contempt in his own literary fashion. It appeared he was writing a novel about the Hell’s Angels, and weaving truth into it, and above all else, a reader in 1966, familiar with the curse of motorcycle gangs, and looking for an entertaining read, would have been captivated by the description.
And who’s to say that by comparing the Hell’s Angels to Mongols and sex fiends Thompson wasn’t presenting a more accurate depiction than was possible through meticulous study of their habits and actions. Although Thompson at times displays empathy for the bikers, the first page of the book provides the exact same understanding of their being as a methodical reading of the book from start to finish.
Which goes to show that even in the early days of his writing, Thompson had managed to evoke a hatred of a subject through vitriolic language, as well as through a long and hard study, presenting a year of solid research.
The first half of the book took Thompson a long time to write. It was well-researched, anthropological and even scholarly at times. It was the result of countless hours spent in the company of the Hell’s Angels, a process which earned him the reputation of being the expert on the subject, and offers from numerous publications. But the second half of the book was something that brought Thompson closer to Gonzo Journalism. Deadline approached and Thompson didn’t have the book finished. He didn’t want to pay back his advance, so he locked himself in a motel room with drugs, whiskey and his typewriter, and spent one hundred straight hours typing without sleep. It took him four days to write as much has he had in the previous six months, and he considered the latter half of the book superior to the first. The result was the Fourth of July and ‘Midnight on the Coast Highway’ sections, where Thompson becomes the centre of attention. He claims that he wrote the latter part immediately after riding his motorbike down the Coast Highway, ‘face still frozen, dark red and crusted with tears.’
Hell’s Angels is significant in the development of Gonzo because it brings Thompson’s writing a step closer to the style that emerged in ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, but it is also important in the history of New Journalism because Thompson set out to write the article, and then the book, partly to correct some of the flaws in the media. He viewed the idea of the Hell’s Angels essentially as a creation of the media, and whether this depiction was accurate or not, it was not fair that it was created by people without any real knowledge of the bikers themselves. Ultimately, the job done by the straight press in reporting the motorcycle gangs was faulty, and another approach was needed: He claimed that, ‘the difference between the Hell’s Angels in the papers and the Hell’s Angels for real is enough to make a man wonder what newsprint is for.’
When he was approached by Carey McWilliams of the Nation, Thompson investigated the Lynch Report, the California Attorney General’s report on motorcycle gangs, and found that not one biker had been interviewed. All the sources were police officers. This, Thompson thought, was entirely unfair. ‘I can’t imagine doing a story without their point of view,’ Thompson said. Thompson also found, after taking the assignment, that some of the facts were wrong. For example, the Lynch Report claimed that the membership of the Hell’s Angels was around four hundred and fifty, whereas Thompson found, after actually consulting the gang, that the number was in fact around one hundred.
It is interesting, then, that in a study of truth and fiction in the work of Hunter S Thompson, we come so early to his contention that the media itself was inherently crooked, and that he was the man to bring the truth to light. But indeed that was his aim, and he clearly believed that the truth could be told through his own artistic methods, as long as the truth was there in the first place:
The Hell’s Angels as they exist today were virtually created by Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times. The Times is the heavyweight champion of American journalism. On nine stories out of ten the paper lives up to its reputation. Yet the editors make no claim to infallibility, and now and then they will blow the whole duke. It would be senseless to try to list these failures, and besides that the purpose of this harangue is not to nail any one newspaper or magazine – but to point out the potentially massive effect of any story whose basic structure is endorsed and disseminated not only by Time, and Newsweek, but by the hyper-prestigious New York Times. The Times took the Lynch report [the pseudo-objective and vague report of an investigation mounted by California’s ambitious new Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch, concerning Hell’s Angels and “other disreputables”] at face value and simply reprinted it in very condensed form. The headline said: CALIFORNIA TAKES STEPS TO CURB TERRORISM OF RUFFIAN CYCLISTS. The bulk of the article was straight enough, but the lead was pure fiction: “A hinterland tavern is invaded by a group of motorcycle hoodlums. They seize a female patron and rape her. Departing, they brandish weapons and threaten bystanders with dire reprisals if they tell what they saw. Authorities have trouble finding a communicative witness, let alone arresting and prosecuting the offenders.”
This incident never occurred. It was created, as a sort of journalistic montage, by the correspondent who distilled the report. But the Times is neither written nor edited by fools, and anyone who has worked on a newspaper for more than two months knows how technical safeguards can be built into even the wildest story, without fear of losing reader impact. What they amount to, basically, is the art of printing a story without taking legal responsibility for it. The word “alleged” is a key to this art. Other keys are “so-and-so said” (or “claimed”), “it was reported” and “according to”. In fourteen short newspaper paragraphs, the Times story contained nine of these qualifiers. The two most crucial had to do with the Hollywood lead and the “alleged gang rape” last Labor Day of two girls, 14 and 15 years old, by five to ten members of the Hell’s Angels gang on the beach at Monterey” (my italics)….The result was a piece of slothful, emotionally biased journalism, a bad hack job that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow or stirred a ripple had it appeared in most American newspapers…but the Times is a heavyweight even when it’s wrong, and the effect of this article was to put the seal of respectability on a story that was, in fact, a hysterical, politically motivated accident.
Thus we come to understand why Thompson took the job of reporting on the Hell’s Angels, and also why he wrote the way he did. We may question his style of reporting, and how effective it could be at conveying any ‘truth’, but Thompson was no fool, and he knew how writing worked. He knew how journalists made lies sound like truth, and he knew how to convey the essence of ‘truth’ as though it were part of a fictional story, and thus create an ease of understanding between the subject and the reader. The reader may walk away at the end of Hell’s Angels with the same feeling of contempt for the subject as after reading a traditional, objective style report from the mainstream press, but it seems that Thompson’s conscience took a break in knowing that at least he’d gotten the truth in the first place.
Thompson was, thankfully, obsessed with truth. He believed that language was important, and he loved vitriolic, Old Testament style language, but that he should use that language on top of truth, to convey the meaning of what he knew.
I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than anything else in the English language — and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.
He loved the power of words, and wished to master them, but only when used in conjunction with truth. He would use his words in letters or conversations with friends, and he would hurt people and be sweet to them, and all of it was out of his devotion to complete honesty, according to Anita Thompson.
In his work he adhered strictly to the truth, too. As he told P.J. O’Rourke, ‘Truth is easier. You can fall back on the truth. You can’t fall back on a story you made up because, by the time [you’ve finished writing it], you’re wondering if it’s good or funny or right.’
What made Thompson and O’Rourke such great literary journalists was their adherence to the truth, and their ability to use language to tell the story. Whereas other journalists would use language to distort the truth or a lie, Thompson and O’Rourke would start with the truth and tell it brilliantly.
Perhaps the best known piece of Hunter S Thompson trivia, as the selling point for the Hell’s Angels book and the question asked by every journalist following its publication, is regarding the ‘stomping’ Thompson received after writing the book. In the postscript, he states that on Labor Day, 1966: ‘I pushed my luck a little too far and got badly stomped by four or five Angels who seemed to feel I was taking advantage of them.’
This section contains dubious information, and really is the centre of the debate regarding truth in Hell’s Angels. The text suggests an entirely unprovoked beating, that started and ended abruptly, and was recalled in a typical Gonzo paragraph of fantasy and hatred: ‘I could see the vicious swine trying to get at me with the stone held in a two-handed Godzilla grip above his head.’
However, Thompson’s later accounts of the event vary, and suggest that perhaps the postscript version was not as accurate as it could have been. In 1987, Thompson told P.J. O’Rourke that the motivation for the attack was money, and that it was not unprovoked:
I was showing the Angels the cover and it said $4.95… And the Angels said, ‘Jesus, $4.95!’ What’s our share? We should get half.’ And I said, ‘Come on… It takes a long time to write a book. Nothing – that’s your share.
So the beating was apparently about money. However, Thompson has also claimed that it was due to his contention that his BSA motorcycle was superior to a Harley-Davidson: ‘I said my bike was faster than his… and all of a sudden, I got it right in the face, a terrific whack.’ Another time he simply stated that he knew it would happen, and that afterwards he remained friends with Sonny Barger, which Barger has always denied. The reality, it would seem, is that Thompson witnessed an Angel called Junkie George slap his girlfriend and then his dog. This is the story that Barger recounted in Hell’s Angel, his autobiography. Thompson apparently told Junkie George that, ‘Only punks slap their old ladies and kick dogs.’ This is quite a far cry from the unprovoked stomping by four or five member that Thompson originally claimed. Certainly, this goes beyond the notion of conveying truth through literary methods, and into the realm of simply fabricating a story.
Another problem then arises in discrepancies between the book and Barger’s account, as Barger claims there was only one punch thrown, as a direct result of Thompson’s actions. Thompson drove to hospital and phoned Sandy, photographed his injuries in a mirror, and then spent several days in bed. And all from one apparent punch. According to Barger, the whole thing was exaggerated and Thompson only provoked Junky George to create a marketing point for the book.
 Johnson, M.L., The New Journalism: The Underground Press, The Artists of Non-Fiction, and Changes in Established Media, (University of Kansas: Wichita, 1971) p.131
 Fremont-Smith, E. ‘Books of the Times; Motorcycle Misfits—Fiction and Fact’ in The New York Times, (Feb. 23, 1967) P.33.
 Reference needed
 Vetter, C., ‘The Playboy Interview with Hunter S Thompson’, Playboy, November 1974
 Thompson, Hell’s Angels p.58
 Thompson, ‘Losers and Outsiders’
 Thompson, Hell’s Angels, p. 1
 Playboy interview
 Thompson, Songs of the Doomed, P115
 Thompson, ‘Losers and Outsiders’, Nation, May 17 1965
 Thompson, Proud Highway, p. 497
 Litwak, L., ‘Hell’s Angels’, New York Times, January 29, 1967
 Thompson, Generation of Swine, Author’s Note
 Thompson, A., The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Hunter S Thompson, p.82-83
 From Gonzo Way, originally O’Rourke’s 1987 interview – need proper reference
 Thompson, Hell’s Angels postscript
 O’Rourke, P.J., ‘Hunter S Thompson’, Rolling Stone, November 5, 1987, p.232
 Playboy interview
 Bulger, A., ‘The Hunter S Thompson Interview’, Culture, March 9, 2003
 McKeen, Outlaw Journalist, p. 111
 Barger, R, Hell’s Angel, (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001) p. 126
 Barger interview on his website
As many of you know, the next issue of Beatdom marks a very special anniversary. It is the fifth anniversary of Beatdom’s inception. Five years is a tremendous landmark in this industry, and we’re celebrating by bringing you our best issue yet, including four massive interviews with some of the hippest, most Beat names around.
Here’s a list of contents…
“Grizzly Bear” Katy Gurin – short story
“Billy Burroughs: Gentleman Farmer” David S. Wills – essay
“Like Some Blissful Ferdinand” Kat Hollister – poem
“Somewhere Far Beyond” Kat Hollister – poem
“Tender Love Song” Chuck Taylor – poem
“Dick in Dixie” Michael Hendrick – interview
“Hunter S. Thompson: Gonzo Frontiersman” Rory Feehan – essay
“Interview with Al Hinkle” David S. Wills – interview
“Autumn’s Mardi Gras” Robin Como – poem
“You Movement” Robin Como – poem
“After the Deluge” Larry Beckett – essay
“Liberation Under the Snow Moon” Zeena Schreck – story
“Interview with Ann Charters” Michael Hendrick – interview
“The Rain Forest Massacre” Michael Shorb – poem
“William Blake and the Beat Generation” David S. Wills short essay
“Richie Ramone is Back” Michael Hendrick – interview
“Untitled Art” Waylon Bacon – art
Review by Jamie Pinnock
Over a decade following his psychedelic explosion onto the silver-screen as Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp returns once more as the enigmatic father of Gonzo journalism, Dr Hunter S. Thompson, in an adaptation of one of his most revered novels, The Rum Diary. Directed by Bruce Robinson, famous for his atypically British cult classic Withnail and I, The Rum Diary sees Depp playing Paul Kemp, a young idealistic writer-turned-journalist who finds himself in the chaotic Caribbean climes of late-1950s Puerto Rico, working for the failing island newspaper, the Daily News.
Before long, Kemp joins the motley crew of vagrant and nonconformist American journalists working at the News, forming an affable on-screen partnership with photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli). Kemp soon moves into a grubby apartment in the centre of the island with Sala and another journalist at the Daily News, the ultra right-wing Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), whose propensity to severe inebriation soon engulfs both Kemp and Sala. In escapades fuelled by the ‘Moburg Bivocal’, a 470-proof home-brewed rum, the three journalists suffer frequent imbroglios with the lawless locals and the island’s corrupt police force, and even an encounter with Moburg’s hermaphrodite witchdoctor. This lethal medley of alcohol-consumption is surpassed only by Kemp and Sala’s introduction by Moburg to ‘the strongest narcotic known to man’, a brief psychedelic interlude that bears obvious allusions to scenes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Yet, there exist two sides to The Rum Diary‘s Puerto Rico: one of alcoholic excess, struggling journalists, and lawless locals; and the other which is dominated and monopolised by the atavistic and hedonistic elite of American society, constructing their American Dream on the Caribbean coastline. Struggling at the Daily News, Kemp is hired by Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), a scheming American businessman, and soon bears full witness to the corruption and decadence of ‘Great Whites’ of American society. Through Sanderson, Kemp meets the stunning Chenault (Amber Heard) and becomes fully embroiled in a highly destructive love-triangle, soon becoming overwhelmed by his romance with the young beauty, who fully reveals to him the darker side of the hedonistic American Dream during a dramatic festival on the neighbouring island of St Thomas. While Chenault remains with Kemp fleetingly, she soon returns to New York, spurning both Sanderson and Kemp. By the end of the film, with the inevitable closure of the Daily News, Kemp is left jobless and destitute, but a changed man. He leaves the Caribbean loathing those ‘bastards’ who perpetuate the American Dream, the dark side of which he has borne full witness to, and having found the ‘voice of ink and rage’ that he was searching for.
Although the The Rum Diary may arguably lack pace at points, the film is a highly entertaining one. Robinson instils the motion picture with moments of pure madness, hilarity and insanity, and creates an authentic feel of Puerto Rico at the turn of the Sixties with some truly stunning shots of the island’s scenery and a classic soundtrack that resonates with the energy of the Caribbean. Both Eckhart and Rispoli give very convincing portrayals of the atavistic Sanderson and the down-and-out, but down-to-earth, Bob Sala. And let’s not overlook Amber Heard, whose radiant performance as the heavenly Chenault will surely absorb many a male viewer. But particular praise must be given to Giovanni Ribisi, whose frenetic portrayal of Moburg, whose recklessness is a portent into the darker side of the excesses of the journalistic life itself, who at many points in the film steals the show. Ultimately, however, The Rum Diary is a testament to yet another captivating performance by Johnny Depp, whose long-awaited return to the silver-screen as Hunter S. Thompson does not disappoint.
But for the more zealous fan of Gonzo, for the true Fear and Loathing fanatic, whether you consider HST a cult hero, a literary genius, or even if you just look up to him recreationally, does it feel like there’s something missing from The Rum Diary? Compared to the lethal medley of alcohol abuse, chemical-induced frenzies and psychedelic rampages that grants Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas its much-deserved cult status, The Rum Diary seems ironically sober. But it is in this manner that Bruce Robinson has created a highly reputable motion picture, staying true to the essence of the novel. The Rum Diary is a precursor to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, showing the young idealistic Thompson trying to find his literary voice. A voice that, just over a decade later, erupts in all its glorious acrimony in the pages of Fear and Loathing, pitted against the same depravity of the American Dream that he first encounters during his days in Puerto Rico. Bruce Robinson’s final message to the viewer thus encapsulates the very essence of The Rum Diary: ‘This is the end of one story. But it is the beginning of another’.
Sympathy for the Devil? Reconsidering the Legend of Raoul Duke on the 40th Anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
by Rory Feehan
“He who makes a beast of
himself gets rid of the pain of
being a man”
– Dr. Johnson (epigraph to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
Early spring 1971 and the first rays of the rising sun creep into a room at the Ramada Inn just outside Pasadena California, where one Hunter S. Thompson is holed up, crouched over his IBM Selectric, hands flashing back and forth over the keys, as though directing a kind of demented orchestra. The words flow faster and faster, a chaotic hell broth of paranoia and insanity that would culminate in one of the most original, hilarious and celebrated statements on the sixties drug culture – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson’s dissection of the dark side of the American Dream would catapult him to rock star status overnight and confirm his status as the infant terrible of the literary world. Through the pages of Rolling Stone he unleashed upon an unsuspecting American public what is undoubtedly his greatest artistic creation, not Gonzo Journalism as many would have you believe, but rather his compelling and brilliantly subversive literary persona – the Hunterfigure – as best exemplified through the guise of Raoul Duke.
What followed for Thompson was an almost Jekyll and Hyde relationship with his literary alter ego, a continuous symbiotic state of co-existence with the monstrous and unruly Duke, for good or ill. Such was the enduring power of the character, heightened by Ralph Steadman’s darkly captivating illustrations, that the public perception of Thompson became truly distorted, unable to distinguish between the serious author and the myth of the drug crazed Gonzo Journalist. Of course, Thompson deliberately contributed to this confusion, blurring the boundary between author and character to such an extent that the ensuing confusion was inevitable. Such was his method actor-like approach to the persona, spanning almost his entire literary oeuvre, that one can be forgiven for being unable to identify the thin line of differentiation between his public image and private self.
In many ways it is this aspect of the Raoul Duke phenomena that has come to define Thompson’s career – with a distinct marker separating the period prior to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from that which subsequently followed, wherein the myth superseded the man. Of course Thompson was acutely aware of the dilemma that the Duke persona presented for him following the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and its immediate follow-up, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. As his output as a writer slowed, his critics accused him of becoming enslaved by the Duke persona, not to mention being creatively burnt out. Thompson himself broached the issue in the author’s note of The Great Shark Hunt, in which he confessed that the anthology marked a milestone in his career:
I feel like I might as well be sitting here carving the words to my own tombstone…and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into the fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue. Nobody could follow that act. Not even me…H.S.T. #1, R.I.P. 12/23/77
Thompson’s frustration as a writer was also evident during this same period in the hour long BBC documentary Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision, as part of which he returned to Las Vegas, accompanied by Ralph Steadman. Though Thompson wilfully participated in the film, he was not entirely comfortable with the idea, aware that there was an underlying presumption that he was somehow going to deliver a sequel to the events described in his classic work, once more running amok in a drug-crazed frenzy on the Las Vegas strip, only this time in front of a film crew. Yet again the misconception surrounding his literary persona had come to dominate proceedings, an issue that Thompson attempted to clarify somewhat when asked as to whether there was any pressure on him to live up to the image he had created:
Well there certainly has, I mean you have been putting it on me all week…I’m not sure at all what you think you are shooting…I have no idea whether you think you are making a film about Duke or Thompson. That’s a serious point, I’m never sure which one people expect me to be and very often they conflict, most often as a matter of fact with people I don’t know, I’m expected to be Duke more than Thompson…I’ve been using Duke for 10 years, maybe more, I began to use him originally as a vehicle for quotations that nobody else would say, that was me really talking, those were my quotes…I’m really in the way as a person, the myth has taken over…I’m no longer necessary, I’m in the way. It would be much better if I die. Then people could take the myth and make films.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and yet the discourse surrounding Thompson’s seminal work has changed little – largely still centred upon Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s astronomical drug consumption and withered analysis of the American Dream. Duke, of course, looms larger than ever, aided in no small part by the tour de force that is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character in Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation, which in itself has attracted a sizeable cult of worship. Just as in Thompson’s own lifetime, the drug crazed Raoul Duke persona overshadows the brilliance behind its very creation. In retrospect, Thompson’s remarks to the BBC now appear to be particularly salient.
That Thompson is still largely misunderstood as a writer is unsurprising though, as there is a long standing pattern of ignoring the thought process behind his greatest work. More often than not, the trajectory of critical analysis has focused on the cult of personality surrounding Thompson and that of his legendary drug consumption, coupled with the subsequent effect of these influences on his writing. Rarely does it pause to reflect on just how and why Thompson came to that point in the first place. There is a wealth of material that pinpoints The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved as marking the birth of Gonzo Journalism, but there is a dearth of analysis on the seeds that were planted along the way. The same goes for Duke, with little discussion of the various incarnations of the Hunterfigure prior to his most infamous outing in the pages of Rolling Stone. Yet it is an essential task and one that does not lead to an undermining of Thompson’s as a writer. In particular by investigating the narrative genealogy of the Hunterfigure we can discover new layers of meaning to every facet of his writing and thus extend the discourse far beyond the current narrow parameters.
Ironically it is the very topic that has overshadowed the genius in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that offers the first clue as to why Thompson felt compelled to create the Hunterfigure and make him a paragon of gross excess. The infamous epigraph at the start of this article returns us to familiar territory – that of the role of drugs in the Gonzo narrative. The quote from Dr. Johnson has now become synonymous with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the rampant consumption of drugs by Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo as they travel across the desert to the very bowels of Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. To date, the significance of the quote has largely been confined to the relationship with the central thematic message of the story. However its deeper meaning in relation to Thompson’s life and work has been all but ignored, which is surprising given that the sentiment behind it, particularly in relation to the latter half of the quote, is tied so closely to understanding his need to create a fictive persona. In order to illustrate this, it is necessary to first take a step backwards and examine Thompson’s early life in Louisville, Kentucky, before subsequently discussing key aspects in the evolution of the Hunterfigure.
The Dark and Bloody Ground
For any discussion that involves deciphering the walking contradiction that was Hunter S. Thompson there is really only one place where you can begin and that is his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky. Renowned for its bourbon whiskey and horse racing, the Bluegrass State is commonly referred by the natives as the “dark and bloody ground” in reference to the tumultuous and violent history of the region, from its use as a hunting ground by the Cherokee and Shawnee tribes to later bearing witness to the Battle of Blue Licks, one of the final clashes in the War of Independence. Kentucky was also home to some of the earliest devotees of the American Dream, being the first area west of the Appalachians to be settled by frontiersmen. The opportunity to start a new life free from the constraints of the law governed east coast proved irresistible, with many of this motley crew harbouring a memory filled with contempt for the society they had left behind, where more often than not they had been treated as social pariahs. In many ways the spirit carried by these people became the spirit of the land itself – fiercely independent with a healthy appetite for rebellion and it was this same spirit that flowed in the blood of Hunter Stockton Thompson when he entered the world on July 18th 1937, the eldest son of Virginia Ray and Jack Robert Thompson. He was later described as having – “shot out of the womb angry”.
Thompson enjoyed a somewhat idyllic life growing up in the peaceful middle-class neighbourhood of Cherokee Triangle, a suburb of Louisville. Jack Thompson, an insurance agent who had previously been married, was forty-two when Hunter was born and his relationship with his son was always somewhat distant, perhaps due to Jack’s strict disciplinary role in Hunter’s life. He had a much closer bond with his mother Virginia, who introduced him to tales such as Jack London’s White Fang and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was also particularly fond of reading about heroes and outlaws of the Wild West, an early influence that was hugely significant according to historian Douglas Brinkley:
…when he was growing up in Kentucky, he was obsessed with tall tales. He would read about Mike Fink and Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket, Jesse James, Annie Oakley, Billy the Kid. He didn’t care whether these stories were true or not – those personas became larger than life. (Stop Smiling Magazine Issue 22)
Indeed, in both his neighbourhood and in school, the young Thompson seemed to be hell-bent on creating his own unique brand of infamy, with his pranks and mischief resulting in a visit to his home by the FBI when he was just nine years old. Accused of having orchestrated the tipping of a Federal Mailbox into the path of a bus, leading to a collision that caused considerable damage, the Agents tried to pressure Hunter into a confession by informing him that they had witnesses. Unconvinced by their story, Hunter called their bluff and enquired as to the identity of these witnesses – the ensuing awkward silence signalled that the game was up. Pressed further by Jack Thompson and having no evidence to substantiate their claim, they swiftly made an exit and were never seen again.
Of course, Thompson was the ringleader of the entire incident and his reasons for doing so reveal an important side to his character. In his opinion, the bus driver needed to be taught a lesson, having become known for pulling away just as the schoolchildren arrived at the bus stop on their way to school. It was a somewhat cruel abuse of the little power he held and it was not going to be tolerated by Hunter and his gang – the Hawks A.C. – with the same spirit of lashing out at those who used their power for nefarious reasons later becoming a cornerstone of Gonzo Journalism. Hunter learned a powerful lesson from the experience and that was to never blindly trust anyone who represented the system, no matter what badge of office they held.
There are two major incidents that occurred in Louisville however, that altered the course of Thompson’s life forever. The first of these was the death of Jack Thompson. His passing had a profound affect on Hunter, coming shortly before his fifteenth birthday. Jack had always maintained a strict guiding influence in Hunter’s life, encouraging his interest in sports and ensuring that he didn’t get too out of hand. After his death, Thompson’s behaviour went unchecked and he quickly spiralled out of control. Virginia Thompson went to work at the Louisville Free Public Library in order to provide for her family, leaving Hunter with plenty of free time to indulge his newfound passion – alcohol. Despite Thompson’s reputation over the years as a notorious chemical abuser, it was a legal drug that first made him a slave to dependency, perhaps more so than any other substance, with the possible exception of cocaine.
In Louisville, it was Thompson’s thirst for alcohol that fuelled his descent into juvenile delinquency. Despite being underage it was never too difficult to gain access to alcohol – after all it was very much part of the social fabric and when the use of fake IDs failed to work for Hunter and his friends, there was always the option of raiding the household liquor cabinet. What followed was usually a bout of running amok and sometimes mindless vandalism, which inevitably brought Thompson into conflict with the law, leading to a stint at the Louisville Children’s Centre. In his inimitable memoir, Kingdom of Fear, Thompson acknowledged his tearaway behaviour as a teenager, likening his antics to that of his childhood hero:
I was a juvenile delinquent. I was Billy the Kid of Louisville. I was a “criminal”: I stole things, destroyed things, drank. That’s all you have to do if you’re a criminal.
Coupled with this reckless behaviour there was also something of a distinct split in Thompson’s identity during this period. At school, despite frequently skipping class to nurse a hangover, he displayed such a talent for writing that his English teacher Harold Teague recommended him to the exclusive Louisville Literary Athenaeum, where he won awards for his satirical essays. Yet the conflicting forces in Thompson’s psyche were never far from the surface, dragging him in opposing directions to such an extent that he was equally comfortable discussing the parable of Plato’s cave, as he was standing in front of judge following his latest bout of drunken revelry. Thompson was adept at compartmentalising different aspects of his life and this extended to his friends, of whom the social range stretched from the underclass to the very top of Louisville’s elite. While Hunter was comfortable moving in both worlds, the more he became exposed to the wealth of a certain circle of friends, the more painfully aware he became of his own social standing. Though Virginia Thompson did her best to raise three sons, it was not easy on her salary as a librarian. While Hunter’s friends talked of going to Ivy League Universities following their high school graduation, he knew this was not a financially viable option. While this situation created a certain resentment for Thompson, it paled into insignificance next to the rage that boiled over within him following an event that marked the end of his youth in Louisville.
Given his love affair with alcohol, it was only a matter of time before Thompson ended up in serious trouble. Yet for once, he was entirely innocent. His only crime was that of being in the company of a friend who had robbed a young couple in the park. Thompson was not even aware of what had actually happened, having been seated in a car during the incident, until he was charged by the police. Nevertheless it was Thompson who bore the brunt of the law, with the sitting judge being more than aware of his previous history as a young offender. This time he was determined that Thompson would not escape unpunished, handing down a six week prison sentence, forcing Hunter to miss two of the most important milestones in any teenager’s life – his eighteenth birthday and graduation from high school. The real injustice of the affair, however, was that the actual perpetrator walked free, courtesy of his influential family connections, leaving Thompson to sit in his cell cursing the injustice of the system and vowing to never again become ensnared in its net.
The social stigma attached to his incarceration was humiliating for Thompson and this was further compounded by his expulsion from the Louisville Literary Athenaeum, whose members had convened a special meeting to decide his status as a member of the association. The entire incident represented an overwhelming rejection by his hometown, but rather than try to atone for his past indiscretions and repair his standing in the community, Thompson instead vowed revenge upon the Louisville establishment. He viewed his treatment as a conspiracy by the authorities and the privileged elite, who had abused their power in order to make an example of him, the easy target with no father to fight his corner.
The fallout from this incident was so emotionally damaging for Thompson that it cannot be underestimated in relation to his direction as a writer. The pain of this incident was a constant driving force that was never far from the surface, strengthening his identification with “outsider” figures and heightening his visceral distrust of authority in all of its representations. Ironically it is also inherently linked to the creation of Gonzo Journalism through The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. In the lead up to his hometown return it was obvious that the opportunity for revenge was on his mind. To Warren Hinckle, editor of Scanlan’s Monthly, he confessed – ‘And that’s it for now, I have to get some sleep before rushing off to confront my festered childhood. God’s mercy on us all.’ In a letter to Pat Oliphant, the first illustrator to be approached for the article, he wrote – ‘Ok for now. I have to get upstairs and call Hinckle. And get my plane ticket – and call my poor mother to warn her that I’m coming back, once again, to whip the shit out of everything I was raised and brought up to hold dear. Selah.’ When Oliphant was unable to accompany Thompson to the Derby, Scanlan’s Monthly made an inspired decision to send Ralph Steadman in his place. What followed was a pure exercise in avenger’s rhetoric by Thompson, with the mint julep-soaked prose eviscerating the Louisville elite in spectacular fashion, particularly when it came to his description of the ‘special kind of face’ that he wanted Ralph Steadman’s illustrations to capture:
It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry – a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.
Of course the journey for Thompson as a writer was a long and convoluted one between his exile from Louisville as a youth and his triumphant return at the Kentucky Derby. The intervening period not only covers the birth of Hunter S. Thompson as a writer but also that of The Hunterfigure – and it is this construct that in many ways proved to be the single most important factor for Thompson in his determination to succeed as a writer, as it afforded him the irresistible opportunity to create a fictionalised portrait of his own life, a second opportunity where the cards of fate were not stacked against him as they had been in Louisville.
A Monster Reincarnation of Horatio Alger
The Hunterfigure was first mentioned by Thompson in correspondence whilst living in upstate New York in 1959. Having fled to New York in search of work as a journalist following his honourable discharge from the military, he struggled to make any discernable impact in the profession, habitually managing to get fired for insubordination or destroying office vending machines. Relying on friends and family to stave off hunger and the ever present threat of eviction, he increasingly began to question the merit of pursuing journalism as a career, particularly in light of his obvious disdain for the hierarchical structure of the typical newsroom, coupled with what he perceived as the shocking ignorance by an assortment of editors to his obvious talent. Thoroughly disillusioned with this state of affairs, Thompson composed a lengthy letter to a former girlfriend in which he revealed the predicament of the “Hunterfigure”:
I’m convinced, of course, that to play a role or adjust to fraud is wrong, and I damn well intend to keep right on living the way I think I should…I know I’m right, but I sometimes wonder how important it is to be right – instead of comfortable…The Hunterfigure has come to another fork in the road and the question once again is “where do we go from here?”
What appears to be an otherwise innocuous statement in fact is a highly literary persona that would eventually be fully realised through the filter of Gonzo Journalism. Unsurprisingly, it also signals his move towards finding solace through fiction, with his first novel, Prince Jellyfish, once again illustrating the distinct sides to his psyche and the desire to make sense of this internal conflict through the cathartic power of writing:
It will be the story of Hunter and Hunter, the way he went and the way he could have gone. And, incidentally, why. I’m using the narrator-participant technique – a la Gatsby – and shooting for a short (300 pages or so) account of three people living a year in New York City that will decide the courses of their lives.
Drawing upon a multitude of experiences between his life in Louisville and his attempt to forge a new beginning in New York, Thompson inserts autobiographical details into a fictional framework to present the story of Welburn Kemp, the first thinly disguised Hunterfigure, who manages to succeed where Thompson himself had failed. Though Kemp experiences the same difficulty in finding work in New York, as a college graduate he is more confident in his dealings with editors, walking out of an interview upon discovering that he is expected to start out as a copyboy. In reality, Thompson could ill-afford to do likewise, accepting the same position with Time magazine, despite considering it as being beneath his talent. Through Kemp, Thompson attempts to exorcise many of his personal demons, creating an idealised world where the rules favour the underdog. The novel also displays the contradictory dichotomy between Thompson’s desire to be accepted by society and that of his embracing of the outsider mantle.
Another important aspect in relation to Kemp is that of the literary blueprint from which he is derived. According to William McKeen, Thompson turned to one of his heroes for inspiration:
The strongest literary influence was J.P. Donleavy’s Ginger Man. Like that novel’s Sebastian Dangerfield, Kemp is selfish and arrogant and yet too charming to be firmly repellent.
Donleavy’s protagonist is also the forefather of Thompson’s Raoul Duke and significantly shares not just the same attitude, but also a similar dispensation for substance abuse. Sebastian Dangerfield drunkenly rampages through the streets of Dublin, clashing with the authorities along the way and leaving a trail of chaos and destruction in his wake. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson amplifies this behaviour in Raoul Duke tenfold, upping the ante to such an extent as to make his drug use redundant. Of course, Duke is far more than a mere exaggeration of Sebastian Dangerfield and while he shares the same literary DNA with Welburn Kemp, there is equally a gulf of difference between Thompson’s respective charges. What ultimately separates the pair is Thompson’s incorporation of Duke into a larger narrative, that upon which America itself stands – the American Dream. Yet this aspect in the evolution of the Hunterfigure did not occur overnight, it was a long process, of which a crucial element is often overlooked – that of Thompson’s time in Big Sur and the influence of Henry Miller.
Thompson had long been an admirer of Miller’s writing and the prospect of living in the vicinity of one his literary heroes proved irresistible when he settled there in 1961. Unbeknownst to Thompson, Miller had earlier departed Big Sur for Europe and as a result their paths never crossed. It is Miller though who, in a way, was responsible for Thompson’s first big break as a writer, inspiring him to write an article, entitled “Big Sur: The Tropic of Henry Miller”, which subsequently appeared in Rogue magazine, marking his first national publication. The heart of the article consisted of a detailed analysis of the dichotomy between Miller’s public persona and his private self, a facet of his life in Big Sur that more than piqued Thompson’s interest:
Miller did his best to stem the tide, but it was no use. As his fame spread, his volume of visitors mounted steadily. Many of them had not even read his books. They weren’t interested in literature, they wanted orgies. And they were shocked to find him a quiet, fastidious and very moral man – instead of the raving sexual beast they’d heard stories about.
The observations made here by Thompson clearly illustrate the understanding that he had of the mechanics involved in the cult of celebrity that had enveloped Miller. He identifies the public appetite for controversy and scandal, the potential manner through which literature can create a persona in the public sphere and the ease at which this persona can develop beyond the boundaries of the written word. It was not lost on Thompson that Miller, who had written prolifically of the serenity of life in Big Sur, struggled to cope with the burden of fame that had besieged his once idyllic existence, despite his best efforts to discourage the flood of pilgrims that were now destroying that which he so valued.
He posted a large, insulting sign at the head of his driveway, cultivating a rude manner to make visitors ill at ease, and devised elaborate schemes to keep them from discovering where he lived. But nothing worked. They finally overwhelmed him, and in the process they put Big Sur squarely on the map of national curiosities.
In detailing the rise of Miller’s profile and the subsequent siege of visitors to pay homage to their literary idol, Thompson creates a portrait that is astonishingly prophetic of his own eventual profile. The essential difference however, which was already clearly evident in Big Sur, is that unlike Miller, Thompson not only enjoyed the glare of publicity, but actively craved it.
In Big Sur, Thompson began to realise the power of self-mythologizing as a gateway towards a higher goal. Through Henry Miller he witnessed the manner in which an author’s persona could becoming synonymous with nonconformist revolt in the public lexicon, which in turn fuelled the propagation of a discourse that elevated him to a status of near mythic proportions. In this sense, Thompson’s experience in Big Sur proved to be a watershed moment, for it marks the turning point in his development of the Hunterfigure – from being that of a basic autobiographical tool to that of a mythmaking persona.
That this would appeal to Thompson is unsurprising in light of his early childhood fascination with myths and legends. It is this same larger than life trait that Thompson invoked in his later portrayal of sports stars and politicians as the modern day heroes and villains within the new pantheon of American mythology. The common denominator here is the enduring power associated with these figures, the special quality that burns into the collective consciousness of man and survives there for generations.
Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that they tyranny of “the rat race” is not yet final.
It is his creation of the Raoul Duke persona that is Thompson’s ultimate attempt to fashion a figure, a myth, that connects with a whole new generation in America – a generation that he believed witnessed the death of the American Dream through the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson even goes so far as to describe Duke as being ‘a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger’ to illustrate his sentiment towards this development, with Horatio Alger having represented the traditional rags to riches story of the American Dream, that with hard work and virtuous living any man could reach the top in life. For Thompson this was a con and in Las Vegas he had found the ultimate proof, a city built on corruption and sleaze that hawked the American Dream to gullible fools who parted with their money in the hope of hitting the big one and striking it rich. Of course, the house always wins, and it is this same false promise that Thompson associates with the blind optimism of the sixties, which was ultimately crushed by the cold hard reality of life under Richard Nixon’s reign.
In this sense, Thompson’s choice of epigraph – ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man’ – can now be considered in a new light. For Thompson the beast is of course Raoul Duke and the pain of being a man harkens back to Thompson’s youth in Louisville where he was ostracised as a “criminal”. Duke is his ultimate revenge on the establishment, his outlaw hero who embraces his status on the edge of society and uses his position to lambaste and ridicule the establishment and their hypocrisy. In a broader context he speaks to the pain of an entire section of American society, from those who are criminalised by the War on Drugs to the many who bought into the sixties dream and were burned in the process.
In closing, I leave you with one final piece of wisdom from Raoul Duke – ‘Learn to enjoy losing.’
It’s 20th February, and that means it’s the anniversary of the death of Hunter S. Thompson. It has been six years now since he shot himself at Owl Farm, and every year legions of Gonzo fans remember his life and work by raising a glass on this sad day.
The Quietus is marking the anniversary of his death by publishing an interview with him that you’ve never seen before.
The Independent has a story about Bruce Robinson’s efforts to make HST’s The Rum Diary into a movie.
(image copyright Isaac Bonan)
Christmas is coming and if you’re looking for the perfect literary gift for a loved one, try the special Hunter S. Thompson box set – containing all four of Wayne Ewing’s fantastic HST movies.
To whet your appetite take a look at Wayne’s most recent blog post on the subject of Hunter and Christmas… Including a familiar video of an act of xmas arson.
And here’s a little gift from Beatdom: a couple of HST Christmas quotes that we dug out for you.
“Anybody who acted happy on Christmas was lying — even the ones were getting paid $500 an hour….The Jews were especially sulky, and who could blame them? The birthday of Baby Jesus is always a nervous time for people who know that ninety days later they will be accused of murdering him.”
It is all well and good for children and acid freaks to still believe in Santa Claus — but it is still a profoundly morbid day for us working professionals. It is unsettling to know that one out of every twenty people you meet on Xmas will be dead this time next year… Some people can accept this, and some can’t. That is why God made whiskey, and also why Wild Turkey comes in $300 shaped canisters during most of the Christmas season.”