Overrated: Hunter S. Thompson

The high priest of  “gonzo” journalism took pride in making stories up — his legacy should be deplored

Oliver Wiseman

It started with breakfast. “Four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of keylime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.”

All of which should be enjoyed alone, “outside in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked”.

To a certain man of a certain age — me in my late teens, to be specific — there was something heroic about the way Hunter S. Thompson liked to start the day.

But it wasn’t just breakfast. Discovering Thompson’s journalistic feats was a thrill. Decades after it was first committed to print, the hard-drinking, gun-toting “gonzo” journalist’s jagged, violent prose couldn’t fail to excite.

Hell’s Angels (1967) was a gory close-up of America’s most notorious bicycle gang. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) was a novelistic account of a drug-fuelled journey to Las Vegas in search of the American dream. His coverage of the 1972 presidential election for Rolling Stone was published as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. In these books and scores of articles, Thompson brought scenes to life in an instantly recognisable style that was exaggerated, eccentric, breakneck and captivating. His work captured the mood and made him famous.

That celebrity eventually evolved into a mythology that elevated the author of a clutch of very good books to the status of literary   deity. And that change had less to do with the art than it did with the artist. His irascible nature, his ability to consume death-defying quantities of drink and drugs, his props — yellow-lensed aviators and a plastic cigarette-holder — became a persona that grew like a parasite on his work. Eventually it reached a size that the host body could not sustain.

The worst of the myths recited by those who worship at Thompson’s altar is the idea that he was doing anything especially new with “gonzo”, the genre of journalism he is credited with creating and which he once described as “a style of reporting based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism”. It is built on the idea that objectivity is impossible and so telling it like it is means telling it as you see it. Let’s not relitigate that one. But, regardless of its merits, it is not a fresh insight. Writers had put the reader in their shoes before the 1960s. And many did so far more effectively than Thompson, for whom gonzo often meant getting so blitzed on bourbon and barbiturates that he missed the story altogether.

Indeed, contemporaries of Thompson who stopped to think, and sober up, before they sat down at their typewriter — Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Gay Talese, for example — told better stories and got closer to the truth.

In keeping with the gonzo motto, the frenetic political dispatches filed for Rolling Stone that became Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail were described by one aide involved in the ’72 election as the “least accurate, most truthful” account of the race.

Thompson’s looseness with the facts in search of some deeper truth did not just mean exercising creative licence with dialogue, for example, or imagining what might have been running through the minds of his stories’ protagonists, practices common among many of the best non-fiction writers. In Thompson’s case it meant cooking up non-trivial claims.

Thompson, who faxed his copy to Rolling Stone as the printing presses were warming up, leaving no time for editing, wrote in one election dispatch that:

Not much had been written about the Ibogaine Effect as a serious factor in the Presidential Campaign, but toward the end of the Wisconsin primary race — about a week before the vote — word leaked out that some of Muskie’s top advisors had called in a Brazilian doctor who was said to be treating the candidate with “some kind of strange drug”. . . it had long been whispered that Muskie was into something very heavy, but it was hard to take the talk seriously until I heard about  the appearance of a mysterious Brazilian doctor. That was the key.

Years later, Thompson admitted to making the whole thing up: “I never said he was [taking Ibogaine]. I said there was a rumour in Milwaukee that he was, which was true when I started the rumour in Milwaukee.” Exactly what journalistic or literary purpose is served by inventing a claim that a presidential candidate is taking psychedelics is not immediately obvious.

When Thompson shot himself in the head in 2005, he left behind some captivating work done in a relatively short period of time, a long tail of rather less glittering prose, and a thousand tedious imitators fond of posing with a glass of whisky and a typewriter and convinced that their stream-of-consciousness prose is of interest to anyone other than their psychiatrist.

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