The Great Shark Hunt; Gonzo Papers Volume One, Hunter S. Thompson, 1978
Most of this review of “The Great Shark Hunt” the master journalistic work of the late Hunter S. Thompson, a man much missed in these quarters by this reviewer originally appeared in a review of one of his latter, lesser books, “Songs Of The Doomed”. Most of the points made there apply here as well but I want to add some additional comments concerning specific articles which you NEED to read to know what mad man journalism in search of the truth, some truth anyway, was all about.
“Generally the most the trenchant social criticism, commentary and analysis complete with a prescriptive social program ripe for implementation has been done by thinkers and writers who work outside the realm of bourgeois society, notably socialists, like Karl Marx. Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky and other less radical progressive thinkers. Bourgeois society rarely allows itself, in self-defense if nothing else, to be skewered by trenchant criticism from within. This is particularly true when it comes from a man of big, high life appetites, a known dope fiend, a ferious wild man gun freak, and all-around edge city lifestyle addict like the late, massively lamented, massively lamented in this quarter in any case, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Nevertheless, although he was far, very far, from any thought of a socialist solution to society's current problems and would reject such a designation, I think out of hand, we could travel part of the way with him. We saw him as a kindred spirit. He was not one of us-but he was one of us. All honor to him for pushing the envelope of mad truth-seeking journalism in new directions and for his pinpricks at the hypocrisy of bourgeois society. Such men are dangerous.
I am not sure whether at the end of the day Hunter Thompson saw himself, or wanted to been seen, as a voice, or the voice, of his generation but he would not be an unworthy candidate. In any case, his was not the voice of the generation of 1968, my generation, being just enough older to have been formed by an earlier, less forgiving milieu, coming of adult age in the drab Cold War, red scare, conformist 1950s that not even the wildly popular Mad Men can resurrect as a time which honored fruitful and edgy work, except on the coastal margins of society. His earlier writings show that effect. Nevertheless, only a few, and with time it seems fewer in each generation, allow themselves to search for some kind of truth even if they cannot go the whole distance. This compilation under review is a hodgepodge of articles over the best part of Thompson’s career, the part culminating with the demise of the arch-fiend, arch-poltical fiend, Richard Nixon. As with all journalists, as indeed with all writers especially those who are writing under the pressure of time-lines and for mass circulation media, these pieces show an uneven quality. Hunter's manic work habits, driven by high dope infusions and high-wire physicial stress, only added to the frenzied corners of his work which inevitably was produced under some duress, a duress that drove his hard-boiled inner demons onward. However the total effect is to blast old bourgeois society almost to its foundations. Others, hopefully, will push on further.
One should note that "gonzo" journalism is quite compatible with socialist materialism. That is, the writer is not precluded from interpreting the events described within a story by interposing himself/herself as an actor in that story. The worst swindle in journalism, fostered by the formal journalism schools, as well as in the formal schools of other disciplines like history and political science, is that somehow one must be ‘objective’. Reality is better served if the writer puts his/her analysis correctly and then gets out of the way. In his best work that was Hunter’s way.
As a member of the generation of 1968 I would note that the period covered by this compilation was a period of particular importance in American history, the covering of which won Hunter his spurs as a journalist. Hunter, like many of us, cut his political teeth on wrestling with the phenomena of one Richard Milhous Nixon, at one time President of the United States, all-around political chameleon and off-hand common criminal. His articles beginning in 1968 when Nixon was on the rising curve of his never ending “comeback” trail to his fated (yes, fated) demise in the aftermath of the Watergate are required reading (and funny to boot). Thompson went out of his way, way out of his way, and with pleasure, skewering that man when he was riding high. He was moreover just as happy to kick Nixon when he was down, just for good measure. Nixon, as Robert Kennedy in one of his more lucid comments noted, represented the "dark side" of the American spirit- the side that appears today as the bully boy of the world and as craven brute. If for nothing else Brother Thompson deserves a place in the pantheon of journalistic heroes for this exercise in elementary political hygiene. Anyone who wants to rehabilitate THAT man before history please consult Thompson’s work."
Beyond the Nixon-related articles that form the core of the book there are some early pieces that are definitely not Gonzo-like. They are more straightforward journalism to earn a buck, although they show the trademark insightfulness that served Thompson well over the early part of his career. Read his pieces on Ernest Hemingway-searching in Idaho, the non-student left in the 1960’s, especially the earnest early 1960s before the other shoe dropped and we were all confronted with the madness of the beast, unchained , the impact of the ‘beats’ on the later counter cultural movements and about the ‘hippie’ invasion of San Francisco. The seminal piece on the Kentucky Derby in 1970 which is his ‘failed’ (according to him, not others) initial stab at “gonzo” journalism is a must read. And finally, if nothing else read the zany adventures of the articles that give us the title of the book, “The Great Shark Hunt”, and his ‘tribute’ to his friend the “Brown Buffalo” of future legend, Oscar Acosta. Those are high water marks in the great swirl of Hunter S. Thompson’s career. Hunter, I hope you find the Brown Buffalo wherever you are. Read this book. Read all his books.”