Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson Proves Good Bathroom Reading

Hunter S. Thompson's suicide probably shocked no one. He certainly didn't hide his intentions. A few days before he died on February 20, 2005, he sent a note to his second wife, Anita, in which he implied that suicide was not just inescapable but long overdue. “67. That is 17 years past 50,” it read. “17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won't hurt.”

That note was later published in Rolling Stone, the counterculture magazine launched in San Francisco that Thompson helped turn into a national success in its early years. Now Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour, two of his editors at Rolling Stone, have compiled Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson — an oral history that offers recollections from a huge “cast of voices,” some famous, some not. The result is a mostly engaging attempt to account for the sudden absence of an author whose irresistible presence was always the focus of his best storytelling.

Thompson's Rolling Stone pieces from the early '70s — including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, both excerpted here — remain the most famous examples of the “Gonzo” style, the name applied to his approach of placing himself near the center of every hyperbolic, drug-addled story. Never mind that many of the details in Thompson's stories were, by his own admission, either exaggerated or just plain wrong. He had a sense that experience is composed more of impressions than of hard facts, especially when experience is filtered through a steady supply of mind-altering substances.

Like other species of New Journalism from the 1960s and '70s, Thompson's Gonzo approach assumes a kind of intense subjectivity, and trusts that the reader is at least as interested in the writer as in the subject. For Thompson, the myth of journalistic objectivity gives way to another myth — the mythologization of the charismatic observer, an observer practicing what Thompson's former editor James Silberman calls “life as performance art.”

One of the pleasures of Gonzo is discovering how Thompson achieved that mythologization almost by accident. Though he was opposed to traditional journalism from the beginning — in 1959, at the age of 22, he told his editor at the San Juan Star that “my time is too valuable to waste in an effort to supply the 'man in the street' with his daily quota of clichés” — the Gonzo phenomenon started much later, when he was having more and more trouble making deadlines. In 1970, Thompson was working on a piece called “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” for the short-lived Scanlan's Monthly. The deadline loomed, so he submitted rough copy; the editors loved it, and Gonzo was born. Says Sandy Thompson, his long-suffering first wife (and one of the most insightful, merciless observers in this book), “When 'Gonzo' first happened, Hunter's first reaction to it was terrible guilt. … He thought it was gibberish.” Gibberish, yes, but also a distinctive style — and by most accounts, Thompson never felt guilty about anything for very long.

It's that kind of revelation that helps Gonzo — at first glance a pastiche of mostly affectionate (if often bewildered) interviews — maintain interest for most of its 400-plus pages. Granted, there's the occasional dull patch during the late 1970s and early '80s, when the sheer quantity of missed deadlines and failed relationships proves more depressing than enlightening. And Thompson's tolerance for drugs and booze in ridiculous quantities (made possible in part by what one of his doctors calls a “superhuman liver”) sometimes makes for a repetitive read. (That said, the sheer amount of mescaline, LSD, and ether on display here would suggest that while Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may be full of exaggerations, the famous description of the stash in the car trunk is probably dead accurate.) In any case, the loose structure of Gonzo (along with its thorough index) rewards the casual browser: Most of the interview segments run no longer than a few paragraphs, and the editors move from one speaker to the next with such frequency that the book sometimes reads like an especially rowdy panel discussion. Gonzo may not always work as a sustained reading experience, but it's one hell of a bathroom book.

It's also full of local interest. Thompson made a habit of firing a shotgun from his apartment window in the Upper Haight and riding his motorcycle through Golden Gate Park at insane speeds in the middle of the night. But for all the time he lived and worked in San Francisco, he was always more of a rural soul, born in Kentucky and passing the better part of his adult life in a “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado.

Like his hero, Ernest Hemingway, Thompson shot himself in rural seclusion. And like his other major literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald, he both wrote about and embodied the failure of American idealism. Hunter S. Thompson was a guy obsessed with, even enamored of, the tragedy of Jay Gatsby — it's no coincidence that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is subtitled A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. In Gonzo, we have a portrait of a lost kid from Kentucky who lived and died as if Gatsby's brand of American tragedy were not a threat so much as a promise.

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