Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist
Douglas Brinkley, ed. Simon & Schuster, NY.
$16.00 paperback, 758 pages.
Balls! I just finished living an exhausting 730-page epistolography that took me half a year to creep and crawl and crawfish through——but not without some laugh-out-loud/listen-to-this!/knee-slapping moments definitely worth the tedium. Which wasn't really that tedious if looked upon as a study of a young ambitious Man of Letters (in the total conventional old school sense) restraining himself from blowing a hole through his head. Because that's what vol. II of "the Gonzo letters (1968-1976)" does: shows Thompson as a cutting-edge philosopher & tragically cursed commentator throwing himself whole-hog into the lethal events of the mainstream day——so as to get his thoughts in order. Which he later injects into personal works of journalism, politics, socio-screeds and invective rants damn well worth the trudgery.
Almost half the book is composed of letters written between 4 and 5 in the Colorado morning, but lucid and luminescent of rat-bastards in our midst exploiting the American soul. And in the process, Nixonian names are singled out, along with sundry scurvy scourgeries, while mapping out "the American Dream." A concept Thompson was charged with making something of, and it bent and broke and busted him for years to envision what everyone knows took form. And en route, we see all his failures in the ditch.
For example, Thompson's bitter angst in this long & drawn-out AmDream odyssey is clearly expressed in his July 12, 1971 letter to Jim Silberman, his editor at Random House, in which he states:
The real problem, as always, is getting you to tell me something except what a wonderful goddamn amusing writer I am. This shit about the American Dream has gone on long enough. Since we signed that original contract I have lived the fucking thing more intensely than anybody I can think of. I have gone to the mat with the bastards for two years in a row.... So for fuck's sake let's do it.
Thompson's breakthrough, however, on the direction to take for "the Vegas book," is illuminated in his July 18, 1970 letter to Ralph Steadman:
Prepare yourself; I suspect we have struck a very weird & maybe-rich vein... but instead of laboring over details I'll just enc. a copy (see below) of a suggestion I sent about 2 wks ago to Warren Hinckle... to wit: "...I thought I'd pass on a suggestion that one of my enemies laid on me today: 'Why don't you just travel around the country and shit on everything?' he shouted. 'Just go from New York to California and write your venomous bullshit about everything that people respect!' Which sounds like a nice idea——a series of Ky. Derby-style articles (with Steadman) on things like the Super Bowl, Times Sq. on New Year's eve, Mardi Gras, the Masters (golf) tournament, the America's Cup, Christmas Day with the Chicago Police, Grand National Rodeo in Denver... rape them all, quite systematically and then we could sell it as a book: 'Amerikan Dreams....' Ah yes, I can hear them weeping already... where will the fuckers show up next? Where indeed? Ponder it, & send word...."
Meanwhile, Jann Werner, Ed in Chief of Rolling Stone, may have helped Thompson make his name more than any other editor/publisher——but man, what a long trip it was, with all sorts of hurdles and curdles and daggers in the back. Ie, constant requests for money spent on hotel rooms, expenditures, travel and debt, while Uncle Sam pounds on the Woody Creek door w/ moving van idling in driveway.
It boggles the mind, these hundreds of pages of self-control coming from a major retorter on our evils, holding back from going postal——since operating on a shoestring is a maddening type of slow-burning acid that feeds on organs from the inside out. Lines like "legal & contractual confusion is driving me to the brink of suicide," of course, are taken much more seriously after someone ices hisself——but still, that's how things were looking back then. How Thompson's friendship with Werner survived such buggery, I'll never know, but I guess Thompson had to make a buck, and I guess he knew who to bend over for, since you're always taking it from someone. So he stuck with a pack of editors and agents whose rape he was accustomed to, and they boned him good, and he kept on coming back for more——even when Werner sent him off to Saigon to cover the American pull-out from Nam, while secretly dropping his health insurance, not paying him squat, then making him beg and grovel and plead like some dime-a-dozen rookie reporter rather than the celeb-lit icon he became.
Because, in essence, this book is an auto-novel of what makes a writer who's worth a spit in a tin can a writer who's worth a spit in a tin can; that is, here we have records of plenty petty squabbles, plots, plans, conspiracies and constant lack of reimbursed freelance dough (while trying to provide for a family & swinging further publishing deals) that still retain their sense of humor——making this collection a true portrait of the development of an artist's worldview, aesthetics, heresy and hatreds. Thompson, however, gets the last word in (from his April 1975 letter to Werner): "In closing I want to thank you for all the help and direction you've given me in these savage hours, and about the only thing I can add to that is that I genuinely wish you were here."
Other high points include some polemical slappery betwixt Thompson and Oscar Acosta (Hispanic lawyer whom the infamous attorney character was based on), an inside look at Thompson's run for Aspen Sheriff on the Freak Power ticket, getting punched in the gut by a Chi-town cop during '68 Demo Convention, his theory on "creative nonfiction," an in-your-face letter to a fawning fan signed "H. 'Ratfucker' Thompson," plenty of name-calling, and letters to and fro Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart and George McGovern. Thompson's undiscovered masterpiece, however, is definitely the "John Wayne/Hammerhead Piece," which begins:
This country is so basically rotten that a vicious, bigoted pig like John Wayne is a great national hero. Thomas Jefferson would have been horrified by a monster like Wayne——and Wayne, given a shot across the time-span, would be proud to pistol-whip a "radical punk" like Jefferson.
John Wayne is a final, rotten symbol of everything that went wrong with the American Dream——he is our Frankenstein monster, a hero to millions... He beats the mortal shit out of anything he can't understand. The brainwaves of "The Duke" are like those of the Hammerhead Shark——a beast so stupid and irrationally vicious that scientists have abandoned all hope of dealing with it, except as an unexplainable "throwback." The Hammerhead, they say, is no different today than he was in One Million B.C. He is a ruthless, stupid beast with only one instinct——to attack, to hurt & cripple & kill.
Thompson's thesis is well argued, hilarious, convincing, and as sharp as the blade used to flay the American Dream with——by "shitting on everything." And for this approach, some naysayers charge Thompson with treason; whereas others claim he's as patriotic as they come——for employing the First Amendment as part of our Checks and Balances to call Tyranny into question.
But there are also plenty of low points in this book. Particularly in regard to Douglas Brinkley's editing job. This book is not only extraneously footnoted and absurdly bracketed [like who needs to know Dostoevsky's first name or that he's a Russian novelist?], it's also condescending and insulting. Granted, some notes help spread light on what Thompson is discussing, but a general readership doesn't need irritating interruptions on who the following people/characters are: Walter Mitty, Thomas Wolfe, Andy Warhol, Ed Sullivan, Neal Cassady, the Jackson Five, Lewis and Clark, and Rod Stewart (besides, "gravel-voiced" misses the mark completely).
Basically, the message that such editing sends is that Brinkley assumes Thompson's readers need to have phrases like "according to Hoyle" explained to them. It's also disappointing to see Brinkley so generically label Le Roi Jones as a "Beat," while not even bothering to address the fact that this highly influential black national dramatist/poet later changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Plus, it's totally inconsistent to explain who Kissinger is, not give any info on Gerald Ford, put brackets in front of [novelist Kurt] Vonnegut, but not touch Mailer in any way——while footnoting a bunch of writers in a certain paragraph but skipping Ed Sanders. And if Thompson's readers are so stupid that they can't figure out what Seconal or chopped hogs are from the contexts they're used in, then America's even way more screwed to death than Hunter S. claimed we are.
Look, Brinkley, we don't need no footnotes on who the Birchers are, the history of Van Gogh's ear, the fact that "schwein" is German for "swine," and everybody knows Dylan's first name. And if we don't know who someone or something is, we'll look it up, okay?
And on top of that, the index is messed up; it says Brinkley is mentioned on p. 753, but guess what? That's just another page of the index, and Brinkley's not even on it. This listing was meant to note where the Editor's bio is, and that occurs on p. 758.
Condescending editing, however, is always worse than sloppy editing——which is much easier to forgive. But whatever the case, that's what you get in this Fear and Loathing, Bubba.
The Unfortunate Butchery of Hunter S. Thompson's
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