Saturday, March 8, 2008

Notes on Gonzo

Having been a Hunter S. Thompson fan for nearly 30 years, I recently decided to spend some leisure hours reading (or re-reading) Thompson's early work, including his breakthrough book, Hell's Angels, first published in 1967, when Thompson was 29.

Thompson's widow, Anita Thompson, has explained that many young HST admirers draw the wrong lesson from his work:
"A lot of young people are under the assumption that if you do a lot of cocaine and drink a lot of Wild Turkey, you, too, can write like Hunter S. Thompson," she told the audience ...
Alas, too true. So anyway, today, I was re-reading The Proud Highway, a collection of Thompson's early letters edited by Douglas Brinkley, and came across HST's Dec. 5, 1957, letter to his friend Joe Bell.

During a stint in the Air Force, Thompson had discovered a knack for sports writing while working for the Command Courier at Eglin AFB in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Given that his burning desire was to be a novelist, the 19-year-old Thompson's attitude toward sports writing was ambivalent: He felt it was beneath his precocious literary talents, and yet (as he later explained in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72) it was the only thing he knew how to do that anybody was willing to pay him to do.

'Not a fit place to live'

Upon leaving the Air Force, Thompson had arranged a job as a sports editor at a small daily paper in Jersey Shore, Pa., a Susquehanna River town about 15 miles west of Williamsport, Pa. My wife and I drove through that area a few months ago and found it charming and scenic at points, though it's hardly a bustling urban scene. And considering that Thompson was a native Southerner (from Louisville, Ky.) who had spent the past two years in sunny Florida, it's not hard to understand his reaction when he arrived in Jersey Shore in December. From his 1957 letter to Joe Bell:

It upsets me to have to go into detail about this fiasco. It is enough to say that a place which combines all the climactical advantages of Iceland and all the entertainment and cultural advantages of Harlan, Kentucky, is certainly not a fit place to live. I very seriously doubt that I shall be able to stand it for more than a month -- if that long.
Here, you see, we get a glimpse into the root and essence of Gonzo: The plight of the writer in a world that is profoundly indifferent to the writer and his craft.

Critics often describe HST's Gonzo journalism as "subjective" or fictionalized, even though some of his writings -- most notably Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72 -- have stood the test of time as factual accounts of historic events.

Gonzo as self-awareness

To the extent that there is something "subjective" about what Thompson did, however, it lies in the ever-present subtext, the self-conscious recognition of himself as a writer on assignment. It is this self-awareness that distinguishes Gonzo from anything else in the field of journalism.

That's why Thompson's reaction to Jersey Shore, Pa., struck me so forcefully. Most people never think about the sort of humiliations inevitably experienced by a young writer. Here is the 20-year-old Hunter S. Thompson, recognized as a literary prodigy since he was a teenager writing for the Athenaeum Literary Association Spectator. And here is the Susquehanna Valley coal-mining town where the newspaper editor -- after evidently giving HST some Chamber of Commerce boosterism about the local scene -- has secured Thompson's services for $75 a week.

Maybe if Thompson had arrived in Jersey Shore in late May, the story would have been different. But for a Southern boy to encounter a small Pennsylvania town in the gray gloom of December? Egad. His stint at the Jersey Shore Herald lasted less than the month he predicted, and soon Thompson was in New York City, where he eventually hired on as a copyboy at Time magazine for $50 a week.

'Slumming' in journalism

You have to see the Gonzo essence here. Thompson had incredible talent. His letters at age 19 or 20 are brimming with evidence of his genius. But for a young writer to gain recognition for his talent is extremely difficult -- even today, when any kid can put up a blog or a Web site and publish his writing for a worldwide readership. It was much more difficult back in the day, when writing had to be done on a typewriter, and when applications, resumes, queries and manuscripts had to be sent to editors by snail-mail.

In order to keep body and soul together, then, Thompson had to hire himself out as a journalist. This meant either putting up with the limitations of a staff gig, like the job in Jersey Shore, or else trying to hustle assignments as a freelancer, as he eventually did with such remarkable success -- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas began as a freelance assignment for Sports Illustrated that HST turned into an assignment for Rolling Stone.

Through all of that, while Thompson was re-inventing journalism on his own terms, he never lost sight of the famous novelist he'd once dreamed of becoming. He felt as if he'd been ripped off, deprived of his proper place in the literary pantheon, and forced to "slum it" as a mere reporter.

'Fear and Loathing' -- and payback

This is what I think most people don't get about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. At some level, that was a story of HST's brutal payback against the publishing establishment.

Remember, in 1958, would-be novelist Hunter S. Thompson had worked as a $50-a-week copyboy for Time magazine. Time was part of the same Time-Life publishing empire that published Sport Illustrated. At the time of his 1971 Vegas escapade, Thompson also had an unfulfilled book contract (originally to have been coverage of the 1968 election) with Random House, which had published Thompson's first book, Hell's Angels.

So in 1971, there was this desert race with dune buggies and motorcycles called The Mint 400, sponsored by a Las Vegas casino. Some genius at Sports Illustrated apparently got the clever idea, "Hey, motorcycles! Hell's Angels is about motorcycles! Let's get that guy to cover the race!" (This is a reverse-engineered surmise of how HST got the assignment; I defy anyone to come up with a more plausible explanation.)

All right, so this is an expense-paid trip, a first-class press junket including a free room at the Mint Hotel. So then Thompson goes to the L.A. offices of Time-Life and talks them into giving him a $300 cash advance for the expenses. (If you've read The Proud Highway, you know how often, as a young freelancer, HST fought with his editors over expenses.) Then he rents the Chevy convertible that Thompson dubs "The Red Shark," and he and his radical Chicano lawyer buddy then spend the next several hours accumulating an unimaginable stash of drugs.

'Weasels closing in'

For some reason, most readers don't get it, but HST explains exactly what he's doing:
Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. ...
Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas. ... Just roll the roof back and screw it on, grease the face with white tanning butter and move out with the music at top volume, and at least a pint of ether.
The key phrase here is "life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in" -- Thompson had a contractual obligation to Random House, at least two years overdue, and he hadn't published a new book since 1967. But there was no way in the world the uptight corporate people at Random House were going to give him the green-light for a book on the stuff he wanted to write, about radical politics and the drug culture.

Here he was, an acclaimed author, with no real prospect of being published again anytime soon, and "the weasels" were indeed "closing in": He had to pay the bills, and even with a bestseller like Hell's' Angels, the book royalties tend to dwindle a good bit after three or four years.

I would argue that this, at least at a subconscious level, was how HST's scheme of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas began. Thompson conceived of this as an opportunity to defraud Sport Illustrated -- to "stick it to The Man" as represented by the Time-Life publishing empire -- by using this expense-paid assignment as an excuse for a daredevil drug adventure.

Triple payback

As he subsequently explained, Thompson's actual assignment for SI amounted to nothing more than providing a few hundred words of copy to accompany a photo spread, but he turned in 2,500 words that he later said were "aggressively rejected" by the editors. Which was just fine with HST -- the expense money was non-refundable. Payback, you see? ($300 was not a small sum in 1971, to say nothing of Thompson's stay at the Mint Hotel.)

The payback continued when the adventure begun at Sports Illustrated's expense was continued -- covering a drug-policy conference of district attorneys -- under the aegis of Rolling Stone.

It's kind of hard for young people today, who know Rolling Stone as a pop-culture magazine about as subversive as US Weekly, to understand how radically dangerous Rolling Stone was in 1971. At that time, merely to have a copy of Rolling Stone lying on your coffee table would have been considered "probable cause."

So HST takes a trip to Vegas at the expense of the Time-Life empire, and then sells the resulting story to Rolling Stone, where it is met with rave reviews. Such is the acclaim for HST's story that he is able to sell it to Random House as the book that fulfills his long-overdue contract, and the rest is Gonzo history.

A triple-burn, you see: HST essentially forced staid, respectable Random House to publish what amounted to a counter-cultural manifesto.

But of course, it wasn't really about the drugs. It was about one writer's revenge on the idiotic editors and clueless publishers who had failed to see his talent back in the days when his career choices amounted to either $75 a week at the Jersey Shore Herald or $50 a week as a copyboy at Time.

HST's appeal to youth

I think this factor goes a long way toward explaining HST's enduring appeal to young writers, or young would-be writers. Let's face it, a writer's life can be a desperate thing, especially for a young unknown. An honest career counselor would tell any student with a top-notch verbal SAT score, "Look, kid, trust me -- you don't really want to be a writer. Law school, that's the way to go."

I've never been one to indulge any romantic nonsense about "suffering for your art" -- c'mon, I'm talking about the newspaper business, not the Sistine Chapel -- but anybody who wants to get ahead as a writer ultimately will have to pay their dues somewhere along the way. Maybe there's some easy way to success that I've overlooked, but every time a young wunderkind comes along, I reflexively expect a crash-and-burn to follow.

Somehow, though, it seems the "American Idol syndrome" -- that Warholian world of reality TV where 22-year-olds explode into overnight celebrities on a weekly basis -- has affected everyone. Nowadays, Washington, DC, is full of kids fresh out of college who think they'll be condemned as failures if they don't have a book deal, a syndicated column and a regular cable-news spot by the time they're 25. And I suppose similar conditions prevail in New York and Los Angeles and every other place where lots of young, talented people gather. Instant fame and instant success are the expected rewards.

OK, kids: Screw you. You're not better than Hunter S. Thompson and, therefore, whatever career hell you have to go through -- whatever obscure, underpaid, beneath-your-dignity gigs you have to work to pay the bills -- is not an injustice.

You are not being oppressed or ripped off. You are not a victim. You're just suffering the fate of young talent in every age. And if you're thinking in terms of payback and revenge, don't worry: Hunter S. Thompson already took care of that.

Just read and enjoy, kids. You'll get your turn one day.

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