Hunter S. Thompson does not suffer fools gladly. For that matter, he seems to suffer no one at all, gladly or not. A survivor of the 1960’s, he has deemed his contemporaries “a whole subculture of frightened illiterates” and those younger than they “a generation of swine.” (And these are the people he professes to like; never mind those he despises, such as George Bush and Charles Keating.) Still, he has carved out a niche for himself as the most beatifically foolish journalist working in America today, a practitioner of inspired lunacy in the name of truth-seeking inquiry. No believer in so-called reportorial objectivity, he has become far better known than most of his subjects. How many people remember Thomas Eagleton (a sideshow character in Thompson’s savage book of 1972, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail) these days?
The Acid Era has left its scars on the man. For one thing, he is now incapable of speaking a coherent, un-whiskey-slurred sentence, an odd condition for a man who makes much of his living on the college lecture circuit. (The kiddies want only to see this legendary man, we must suppose, not to hear what he has to say.) For another, he has never recovered from the paranoia of the Nixon years, and his reclusiveness is legendary. For that reason, Paul Perry warns us early on, his life of Thompson “is a violently unauthorized biography.”
Perry himself is no detached observer. As editor of Running magazine in the early 1980’s, he commissioned Thompson to attend an Ironman Competition (a grueling athletic contest comprised of swimming, bicycling, and running) in Hawaii. Thompson, fueled by all sorts of chemical compounds and incentive-reducing beverages, never delivered the manuscript Perry expected, but the all-expenses-paid trip later yielded Thompson’s disappointing book The Curse of Lono. Perry’s hours spent trying to coax a printable text from Thompson had results, too: they gave him an up-close look at the writer, as well as a means of discovering—burst by incoherent burst—a few details about the man behind the druggy mask, the man who refused to cooperate with Perry while providing abundant material.
Born to genteel poverty into an old Louisville family, Thompson was a young golden boy, popular in school for his athletic prowess, good looks, quick wit, and gift with a pen. As a teenager, however, the now fatherless Thompson took to drinking and hell-raising; he failed to graduate from high school and, as an enlistee in the Air Force, managed to rack up nearly every punishment duty short of time in Leavenworth for myriad acts of rebellion. (His unit commander called him “totally unclassifiable . . . one of the most savage and unnatural airmen I’ve ever come up against.”) Dismissed from the service in 1957, Thompson wandered into New York, promptly found a series of plum journalistic jobs and just as promptly was fired from them, married and divorced and married again, and then took up the life of a beatnik in Puerto Rico and, later, at Big Sur.
Only after a few years of poverty—the real thing this time—did Thompson give up the bongos-and-Chianti life and find meaningful work. He made his way to Latin America and began to submit pieces on speculation to the newly founded National Observer, a newspaper of opinion. The editors liked what they saw, especially a story that Thompson filed from Caracas,Venezuela, in which he described a British diplomat who practiced his golf game on his penthouse terrace, driving golf balls far out into the city below; “Where they fell,” Thompson wrote, “neither he nor I nor anyone else on the terrace that day had the vaguest idea.”
Still, Perry reminds us, straight journalism and Thompson never quite seemed to coincide. When in need of a colorful anecdote to enliven a story, Thompson would cheerfully invent one and never mind the consequences, whether a libel suit or a bullet. His unlikely tales of ever-uglier Americans south of the equator finally came under editorial scrutiny, and Thompson was invited to contribute his work elsewhere. Finding a new home at Scanlan’s magazine, Thompson relocated to San Francisco, where he found the subject that would make his reputation: the nation’s most vicious motorcycle gang, his study of which led to his first book, Hell’s Angels. He also discovered, in those heady days of 1964, other matters that would carry his reputation even farther: chemicals with names like LSD, STP, and DMT.
The effects of those drugs upon a mind already given to inventing tales and presenting them as fact soon led to the formulation of Thompson’s now famous style. The origins of the term “Gonzo Journalism” are shrouded in time—Perry traces it to an editor at the Boston Globe—but you will now find it in Webster’s third: “bizarre, unrestrained, specifically designating a style of journalism so characterized.” Whether it can fairly be called journalism at all is an issue Perry chooses not to address; if I were a bookseller or a librarian, I would shelve Thompson’s work in the fiction stacks. Certainly his purportedly fly-on-the-wall encounters with ). Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and more recently Clarence Thomas, published as straight fact in Rolling Stone magazine (for which Thompson is “sports editor”), qualify as some of the funniest lies since Mark Twain’s. And a good lie, as we all know, can convey a world of truth.
After drawing on interviews with more than a hundred friends and confidants of Thompson’s, Perry devotes a bit too much of his book to considering Thompson’s published work. Anyone who has read Thompson—an acquaintance I highly recommend, with a grain-of-salt caveat—will find Perry’s reading a bit pedestrian; thankfully, he steers clear of lit-crit while offering his précis of Thompson’s seven books and countless articles. Still, Fear and Loathing is strong enough work to transcend this mode st shortcoming.
Res ipsa loquitur, Thompson is fond of saying. The thing speaks for itself. Paul Perry’s useful—and enormously entertaining—book surely does. This candid biography may reduce the admiration many people feel for the man, whose fame derives from some, if not all, of the wrong reasons. Fear and Loathing gives us a tantalizing look into the mind of our foremost chronicler of the death of the American Dream. Read it and weep.
[Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson, by Paul Perry (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press) 288 pp., $22.95]