By Joshua Lawrence Breslin
Fear And Loathing In America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, The Gonzo Letters, Volume Two, 1968-1976, Hunter S. Thompson, Simon &Schuster, New York, 2006
I have written a number of reviews about the book s of the late outlaw gonzo journalist “Doctor Gonzo” Hunter S. Thompson. Those reviews have centered on the impact of his journalistic work in the pantheon of American political and social criticism and the jail break way that he presented his material that was like a breath of fresh air coming from out in the jet stream somewhere after all the lame gibberish of most reportage in the 1960s and 1970s (extending unfortunately to this day). His seemingly one man revolt (okay, okay Tom Wolfe and others too but he was the king hell king, alright) against paid by the word minute stuff of hack journalism told us the “skinny,” and told that straight, warts and all. The book under review however is more for aficionados like this writer who are interested in the minutiae about how this man created what he created, and the trials and tribulations, sometime bizarre, he went through to get the damn stuff published. And while one can rightly pass on the pre-Gonzo first volume of Thompson’s letters this one is worth reading for it provides the back drop to Doctor Gonzo’s most creative period, that period from about the publication of Hell’s Angels until his “discovery” of one Jimmy Carter. The period when Hunter S. Thompson was “riding with the king.”
In those earlier reviews (especially Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing On Campaign 1972, and Songs of The Doomed) I began with some generic comments applicable to all his work and they apply here as well so I will recycle them and intersperse additional comments about this book as well.
“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 and other progressive thinkers. Bourgeois society rarely allows itself, in self-defense or hidebound fear, to be skewered by trenchant criticism from within. This is particularly true when it comes from a known dope fiend, gun freak and all-around lifestyle addict like the late, lamented Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Nevertheless, although he was far from any thought of a socialist solution to what ails society, particularly American society, and would reject such a political designation we of the extra-parliamentary 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 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 being just enough older than us to have been formed by an earlier, less forgiving milieu. The hellhole, red scare, cold war night in all its infamy that even singed my generation. His earliest writings show that shadow night blanket, the National Observer stuff, well-written but mainly “objective” stuff that a thousand other guys were writing (and were getting better paid for). 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 letters over the best part of Thompson’s career, 1968-76.
As with all journalists, as indeed with all writers especially those who are writing under the gun and for mass circulation media, these letters reveal the tremendous time pressures put on writers under contractual publishing deadlines, the ridiculous amount of time spent trying to “hustle” one’s work around the industry even by a fairly well-known writer , the creative processes behind specific works (particularly the Fear and Loathing books) as outlined in several letters, including some amusing “cut and paste” efforts to use one article to serve about six purposes , and horror of horrors, damn writer’s block (or ennui). Some of these letters are minor works of art; others seem to have been thrown in as filler. However the total effect is to show the back story of a guy who blasted old bourgeois society almost to its foundations. Others will have to push on further.
“Gonzo” journalism as it emerges in the crucible of these letters, by the way, is quite compatible, with historical materialism. That is, the writer is not precluded from interpreting the events described within himself/herself as an actor in the story. The worst swindle in journalism, fostered by the formal journalism schools, as well as in 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. And that premise shines through some of these letters.
As a member of the generation of 1968 I note that this was a period of particular importance in which won Hunter his spurs as a journalist. Hunter, like many of us, cut his political teeth on raging deep into the night against one Richard Milhous Nixon, at one time President of the United States, common criminal (unindicted, of course), and all- around political chameleon. Thompson went way out of his way, and with pleasure, skewering that man when Nixon was riding high. He was moreover just as happy to kick Nixon when he was down, just for good measure. Nixon represented the “dark side” of the American spirit- the side that appeared then, and 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 hygiene. Anyone who wants to rehabilitate THAT man before history please consult Thompson’s work first. Hunter, I hope you find the Brown Buffalo wherever you are. Read this book. Read all his books to know what it was like when men and women plied the journalist trade for keeps.