Fear and Loathing in Polemics:
The Unfortunate Butchery of Hunter S. Thompson's
Amazing and Draining
by Mark Spitzer
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America:
The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist
(Gonzo Letters, Volume II, 1968-1976),
Douglas Brinkley, ed. Simon & Schuster, NY.,
$16.00 paperback, 758 pages.
Balls! I just finished living an exhausting 730-page epistolographie 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 at all 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 motherfucking head. Because that's what this book 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:
Meanwhile, Jann Werner, Ed in Chief of Rolling Stone, may have helped Hunter make his name more than any other editor/publisher——but man, what a long shitty 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/ a moving van idling in driveway.
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...."
It boggles the mind, these hundreds of pages of self-control coming from a major retorter on our evils, holding back from going postal. Because 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" (680), of course, are taken much more seriously after someone ices himself——but still, that's how things were looking back then. How Thompson's friendship with Werner survived such business buggery, I'll never know and understand, but I guess Hunter S. had to make a buck, and I guess he knew who to bend over for, since you're always taking it in the ass from someone. So he stuck with a clusterfuck 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 icon he became.
Because, in essence, this book is an auto-novel of what makes a writer who's worth a shit a writer who's worth a shit; 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 retains its sense of humor——making this collection a true blue 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."
And Aaargh, the tangled web of other relations woven in this nightmare weave! Particularly that of Oscar Acosta, the Hispanic lawyer whom the infamous Samoan attorney was based on. There are tons of letters between these two, illustrating the architecture of a highly volatile/highly complex/highly fucked-up camaraderie oscillating between lysergic binges, lawsuits and demands for moola——or else! A true polemic love affair sans the homoerotic bull of the land, which ends in mysterious tragedy when Acosta is accosted & ends up missing, never to be seen again.
Plus, we also get an inside look at Thompson's run for Aspen Sheriff on the Freak Power ticket (because contrary to popular opinion, Thompson was an avid believer in using the system to create change from within). And we also get some firsthand observations of the '68 Demo Convention when Thompson got punched in the gut by a Chi-town pig. Not to mention occasional glimpses of Dr. Thompson, semi-reluctant critical theorist, who knew his business and considered the place of "creative nonfiction" decades before the tweedy bandwagon began spewing it swill about the fuzzy lines between:
Under normal circumstances it should never be necessary for a writer to explain how his work should be read. In theory, all literature & even journalism should be taken on its own intrinsic merits——above & beyond (or even below) the confusing contexts of whatever reality surrounded the act of writing. This was the keystone of the New Criticism, a now-discredited "school" of elitist/academic criticism that flourished in the 1950s and largely accounted for the massive loss of interest in all forms of "fiction" writing by the end of the 1960s——or at least all forms of "fiction" except what some managed to peddle as "new journalism."
But on to the high points of these letters, like Thompson's rollicking reply (May 31, 1968) to a fan of Hell's Angels, who asked for advice on a "Fiction Writing Course offered by the Famous Writers' School in Connecticut":
This is a term that Tom Wolfe has been trying to explain on the lecture-stump, for more than five years... and the reason he's never been able to properly define "the new journalism" is that it never actually existed, except maybe in the minds of people with a vested personal interest in the "old journalism"——editors, professors and book reviewers who refused to understand that some of the best of the country's young writers no longer recognized "the line" between fiction and journalism.... the first big breakthrough on this front was Jack Kerouac's On the Road——a long rambling piece of personal journalism that the publisher (Viking) called "fiction" because if they'd said it was "journalism" no Literary Critic would touch it... And, with that, the mass media had a profitable excuse to recognize what they called "a whole new style of writing" (420-421).
Dear Mrs. Hoffman,
Similarly, Thompson's April 17, 1976 letter to Loren Jenkins of Newsweek illustrates another frequently used voice in the letters ("You thieving scumbag... you owe me $200.... You pig."), often reserved for the director of programming at his local network affiliate, Dave Allen of KREX-TV:
You are one of the few people who read my book... closely enough to realize that the whole thing was a wonderful rat-fuck... The best part of the action was beating the living shit out of anybody who bugged me. I broke a lot of goddamn faces, just for the hell of it, and usually I had plenty of help because we all stuck together. Terry and Tiny just took off for New York; they stayed here a few days and I gave them your address before they left. They live off the land when they travel, so they need to know places where they can rest and do their thing for a while. They left the coast yesterday after taking me out to the airport. I missed my flight because we got in a fight with some longhair types, but I finally got off. And then that fucking stewardess gave me some shit about my clothes. I punched her around and put some bastard's eye out when he tried to jump in. They busted me in NY and I need money now so I can hire a punk lawyer. Send $500 to me c/o Random House as quick as you can. Terry & Tiny said they'd be here by June 1, but they always get hung up when they travel & if you see them before I do, tell them what happened so they can do something for me. I'm in bad trouble because the editor says I owe them money and won't even give me a goddamn dime. You and Terry and Tiny are the only people I can count on. For Christ's sake, do something.
As for that shit-brained writers school, it's a bad hype and a con game and anybody who falls for it deserves whatever happens to them. You must be thick as a goddamn redwood tree to think they'd give you an "A" on the first run. Shit, everybody gets a "C." That way, there's room for improvement, which costs about $500, right? If you give those evil bastards a dime they'll jack you up for the whole thing. You'd be better off sending the money to me. I picked up a fat young boy in Times Square but he's a demanding little bastard & I need a lot of grease for him. This younger generation has gone to the dogs. They're a bunch of communist yellowbellies. Every time I see one I whip on the bastard. I'd like to kick the shit out of somebody right now, for that matter. But my uniform ain't back from the cleaners yet. So I'm naked. Yeah, nothing but crabs between me and whatever I want to hurt. I like it this way. But if you think I'm weird, just wait for Terry and Tiny. They'll show you where it's at, and your friends too, if they want it.
H. "Ratfucker" Thompson.
I was particularly struck by the fact that you "take exception to the profanities utilized in (my) letter"... and to that I can only say Fuck Off.
Such notorious harangues (later directed toward little George W. in Kingdom of Fear) allow readers to live vicariously, since this is the stuff of those who wish they would've said what they didn't. Another case in point is Thompson's August 1st, 1976 letter to Paul Gorman, WBAI-FM: "I don't give a flying fuck if you live or die——or what you think about Carter, or me, or my opinions about Carter, or his opinions about me; or anything else, for that matter"——an acidic tone which hits its stride in Thompson's October 4, 1975 diatribe to Dick Tuck:
I take exception to 99% of the cheap goddamn garbage you put on the air. Your scheduling is a monument to everything rotten in America... and you have the gall to sit here and call my July 3 letter "profane." You ignorant freak; from now on I'll address you on your own level.
You're a fine example of the kind of waterhead who has crippled the whole television medium (194-195).
What matters is that I'm being pilloried all over the fucking world for taping confidential conversations in Saigon and then sending them to Newsweek and butchering people's careers... and if this is your idea of humor, it sure as hell isn't mine, and needless to say I'd never have given you that thing if I'd had the faintest fucking notion that you were going to use it to make a worldwide asshole of me... and for all I know you're playing the bastard all over Europe right now... anywhere I go, form now on, people are going to run away from me when I bring out a tape recorder... and every time that happens, Dick, I'm going to think of you.
Other high points are personal comments on Richard Nix ("1968 seems to have been a really awful year for everybody except... that evil scheming bastard," 136) and letters to and from Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, and George McGovern, whom he admired as politicians and human beings, despite the fuck-everything-and-especially-the-establishment attitude Thompson is stereotyped as holding to. Except in the case of Hubert Humphery: "He's never liked me, and this may be his way of trying to burn me on what he naturally assumes is my own turf... God damn his treacherous ass! Who'd have guessed that a useless atavistic dingbat like Hubert would have zeroed in on my one weakness?" (510).
All I can do at the moment is ask you to send the fucker back to me and try to mend any damage you've already done with it... and if I keep hearing stories about how you're "amusing" people with a tape that I duped for you in good faith and without the slightest notion that you'd put it to this kind of use, you might as well plan ahead and buy a plot in the cemetery next to your Aspen house for those dogs of yours, because I'll come into your yard and blast those little fuckers into hamburger right in front of you. Two of them bit me last summer, and I see no reason to tolerate that shit any longer... so the next time they menace me I'll kill them.
Then there's History's first mention of a millennial phenomenon commonly seen on TV today: "The inference that Kesey staged gang-rapes for journalistic tours... makes me wonder what sort of crippled reality-show I'm contributing to by writing 'journalism'" (139). Not to mention Thompson's daring Célinian proclamation that we are all swine: "it occurs to me that maybe Arafat has a point, after all. Yes, the Jews should be driven into the Sea——along with the Irish & the Spics & the Okies & the Niggers & all the rest. Indeed. We are all pigs" (369). Such outbursts, however, are balanced by scattered moments of poli-scientific-meta-poetic brilliance:
The language of physics and the language of law have always fascinated me; they are not the same, because the ends and antecedents are different, but there is a sameness in the precision and the efficiency, although the language of physics is bent to solving problems, while the language of law can be just as precise and efficient when used to create problems, or obscure them, or even to alter the nature of problems and create the appearance of a solution.... But there is no room for an adversary relationship in physics, because that in itself is a problem and a barrier (705).
Ultimately, though, Thompson is a highly perceptive social critic and his off-the-cuff momentum-filled remarks to US Representative John Burton desire to be repeated here:
I know you probably agree with most of what I'm saying or at least implying here & I'm honestly not trying to hassle you on this thing... but, jesus, the larger implications are root-ugly: Here we have a disastrously stupid (in the eyes of almost everybody I talked to until I got back to the U.S.) and potentially terminal "military operation" set in motion by Nixon's appointed President and Nixon's appointed Secy of State, endorsed in spades by a mean & immensely wealthy thug appointed by Ford to the vice presidency and also clearly endorsed and planned by whoever in hell the "Joint Chiefs" happen to be at this moment... and the best information either one of us can get on the goddamn thing (you as a U.S. Congressman & me as a journalist) is no more than a mixture of newspaper wisdom that appeared shortly after the fact... and yet we both know beyond any doubt and even from "the record," as it were, that the whole Mayaguez gig is hagridden from start to finish with lies, conflicts, at least 41 senseless deaths and god only knows what else——and that it also stands, along with the american evacuation of Saigon, as a stinking monument to what appears to be a serious loophole in Public Law 93-148 (the "War Powers Resolution" of Nov 7, 1973).
Thompson's undiscovered masterpiece, however, is the "John Wayne/Hammerhead Piece," which begins:
In other words, I get a definite impression that the White House——now occupied by a president and potentially by a vice president that nobody ever voted for——has a de facto carte blanche to order up a full-bore, top-secret military operation by U.S. Marines on any country in the world whose government happens to cross "the U.S.A." at any given moment, even by accident or a set-up (638).
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.
The 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 him 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.
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 (436).
But there are also plenty of low points in this book. Particularly in regard to Douglas Brinkley's absolute horseshit 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 are ignorant, so 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 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 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 fucked 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. If we don't know who someone or something is, we'll look it up, okay? So don't go dissecting the fuck out of stuff——it's annoying, you're annoying, and this annoying invasion naturally eclipses any good you did with these letters——if any.
Meaning the name of Brinkley sullies the "Honor Roll," that curious list of noteworthy humans often found at the end of a Dr. Thompson book. Besides, even the index is screwed up. It says Brinkley is mentioned on p. 753. Well 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. And if the real editors at Simon & Schuster had any sense at all, they would've just left that page off, as well as Brinkley's name, which is really no selling point at all——especially if it's associated with embarrassing mistakes that turn an amazing literary legacy into an overwhelming labyrinth of someone else's ego-rot that will not appeal to fans of Gonzo, but may be useful to a handful of scholars and/or hard-core followers. Because if there's one things worse than shoddy editing, it's shitty editing, which is what you get in this Fear and Loathing, Sportsfans.