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Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

I guess I can call myself one of the Dylan generation since, at 63, I’m the same age as the troubadour from Hibbing but the prose stylists that allured an Anglo-Irish lad hopelessly strapped into the corsets of Latinate gentility were always those of American rough-housers: first, in the mid-fifties Jack Kerouac, then Edward Abbey, then Hunter Thompson.

Thank God I never tried to imitate any of them. Thompson probably spawned more bad prose than anyone since Hemingway, but they all taught me that at its most rapturous, its most outraged, its most exultant, American prose can let go and teach you to let go, to embrace the vastness, the richness, the beauty and the grotesqueries of America in all its thousand landscapes.

I tried to re-read Kerouac’s On The Road a few years ago and put it down soon enough. That’s a book for excited teenagers. Abbey at full stretch remains a great writer and he’ll stay in the pantheon for all time. Lately sitting in motels along the highway I’ve been sipping into his diaries, Confessions of a Barbarian, and laughing every couple of pages. “Writing for the National Geographic,” Abbey grumbled, “is like trying to masturbate in ski mitts.”

Could Thompson have written that? Probably not. When it came to sex and stimulation of the synapses by agents other than drugs or booze or violent imagery Thompson was silent, unlike Abbey who loved women. Thompson wrote for the guys, at a pitch so frenzied, so over-the-top in its hyperbolic momentum that often enough it reminded me of the squeakier variant of the same style developed by his Herald-Trib stable mate and exponent of the “New Journalism”, Tom Wolfe. In their respective stylistic uniforms they always seemed hysterically frightened of normalcy, particularly in the shape of girls, so keenly appreciated by Abbey.

Thompson’s best writing was always in the form of flourishes, of pell-mell bluster wrenched from himself for the anxious editors waiting well past deadline at Scanlans or Rolling Stone, and in his later years often put together from his jottings by the writers and editors aware that a new “Fear and Loathing” on the masthead was a sure-fire multiplier of newstand sales. Overall, Thompson’s political perceptions weren’t that interesting except for occasional bitter flashes, as in this sour and prescient paragraph written in 1972:

“How many more of these goddam elections are we going to have to write off as lame but ‘regrettably necessary’ holding actions? And how many more of these stinking double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me at the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils? I understand, along with a lot of other people, that the big thing, this year, is Beating Nixon. But that was also the big thing, as I recall, twelve years ago in 1960–and as far as I can tell, we’ve gone from bad to worse to rotten since then, and the outlook is for more of the same.”

There’s nothing much to the notion of “gonzo” beyond the delighted projections of Thompson’s readers. The introduction of the reporter as roistering first-person narrator? Mark Twain surely did that, albeit sedately, and less sedately we had Henry Miller, another man who loved women, pushing the envelope far further than Thompson. (Which of the road books will last longest between Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Kerouac (chauffeured by Neal Cassady) and then Thompson drove faster but they didn’t write better.) Norman Mailer took the form to the level of genius in Advertisements for Myself, with political perceptions acuter and writing sharper by far than anything Thompson ever produced.

“Gonzo” was an act, defined by its beholders, the thought that here was one of Us, fried on drugs, hanging onto the cliff edge of reality only by his fingernails, doing hyperbolic battle with the pomposities and corruptions of Politics as Usual. And no man was ever a more willing captive of the Gonzo myth he created, decked out in its increasingly frayed bunting of “Fear and Loathing” “The Strange and Terrible”, decorated with Ralph Stedman’s graphic counterpoints.

Like Evel Knievel, Thompson’s stunts demanded that he arc higher and further with each successive sentence’s outrage to propriety, most memorably in his obit for Richard Nixon:

“If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.”

Kerouac ended sadly at 47. As Abbey nastily put it, “Jack Kerouac, like a sick refrigerator, worked too hard at keeping cool and died on his mama’s lap from alcohol and infantilism.” Abbey himself passed gloriously at 62, carried from the hospital by his pals to die at his own pace without tubes dripping brief reprieves into his veins, then buried in the desert without the sanction of the state.

How about Thompson? His Boston lawyer George Tobia Jr told the Globe the 67-year-old author sat in his kitchen Sunday afternoon in his home in Woody Creek, Colo., stuck a .45-caliber handgun in his mouth, and killed himself while his wife listened on the phone and his son and daughter-in-law were in another room of his house. His wife had no idea what had happened until she returned home later.

Seems creepy to me, same way Gary Webb blowing his brains out a while back with a hand-gun was creepy. Why give the loved ones that as a souvenir? I suppose Thompson’s message was: We were together at the end. Webb was truly alone. He lifted the curtain on one little sideshow of the American Empire, and could never quite fathom that when you do that The Man doesn’t forget or forgive. Thompson engaged The Empire on his own terms and quit the battlefield on his own terms too, which I guess is what Gonzo is all about.

 

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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