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The gonzo king’s booming message

TODAY, THE King of Gonzo will be gonzo with the wind, as Hunter S. Thompson’s remains are blasted skyward at his Woody Creek, Colo., compound. It’s no surprise that he would want to leave the world with a bang; he never resorted to half-measures in his life or work. This created problems for his critics, who believed Thompson’s wilder fabulations -- especially in his two best books, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72" -- compromised his gift and, by extension, the entire practice of journalism.

Thompson was the most notorious of the first-generation New Journalists, those wildly ambitious and gifted writers who employed novelistic techniques -- a shifting point of view, heavy dependence on dialogue -- and wrote enduring classics of American nonfiction. With Thompson’s death in February, his critics, who thought he too often fudged the facts until they collapsed into falsehoods, were happy to bid adieu to the reportage if not the man.

It’s true: Thompson sometimes got things wrong. But at his best, he landed solid body blows against American chicanery and hypocrisy in ways that would have been impossible had he resorted to a straight, just-the-facts approach. Thompson’s tools were that of a master satirist, and his most potent weapon was humor.

New Journalism was never intended to give writers creative license to kill responsible reporting. When Tom Wolfe compiled his 1973 anthology of the genre (with pieces from Thompson, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and others), he was sending up a flare, hoping that writers would work a little harder to tap into the marrow of the “mad, hulking carnival” of American culture.

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Thompson did his level best to deliver. His first book, “Hell’s Angels,” was a breakthrough in immersion journalism, the first time a writer had gotten close enough to the motorcycle gang to write an accurate account.

As Thompson became famous, he grew increasingly confident in his ability to harness a mad-dog hyperbolic style to conventional assignments. In “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” (anthologized by Wolfe), he eviscerated myopic Southern culture with a wild sendup of Louisville’s beloved, booze-soaked Derby day, capturing the madness better than anyone ever had.

Not that Thompson’s work was without precedent. British satirist Jonathan Swift, in his 1726 piece, “A Modest Proposal,” suggested that the English eat Irish children to combat population growth and food shortages. And Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” mocked benighted American pilgrims en route to the Holy Land in ways Thompson surely appreciated.

H.L. Mencken, the great newspaper man of the early 20th century, is another American precursor. He wielded rhetoric like buckshot, aiming wide and hitting presidents, lawyers, celebrities, puritans. When Mencken wrote “every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods,” it has the flavor of Thompson’s proclamation that Richard Nixon is “America’s answer to Mr. Hyde” who “speaks for the Werewolf in us.”

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Thompson’s 1972 presidential campaign coverage was lambasted by some fellow correspondents. One passage in particular, in which Thompson claimed that the hallucinogen ibogaine might have been responsible for candidate Ed Muskie’s narcotized behavior on the stump, was criticized by those who thought it compromised Muskie’s chances. But even Muskie’s campaign manager, Burl Bernard, never really felt that Thompson’s writing significantly damaged Muskie’s run.

Was Thompson’s reporting misconstrued by readers who didn’t get the joke? Perhaps. But context is everything with Thompson, who was filing his campaign dispatches for Rolling Stone, a biweekly whose readers already had been alerted to Thompson’s fact-into-fiction technique with 1971’s drug fantasy “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Thompson’s writing wasn’t a con job, as New Journalism’s detractors sometimes claim, but highly stylized social criticism written for readers who understood it and looked to Thompson not for hard facts but deeper truths.

Test it for yourself. Pick up a copy of “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” the book that grew out of the Rolling Stone pieces. Three decades later, the satire is discernible and so are the revelations. Well before Watergate blew up into a national crisis, for instance, Thompson had this to say about Nixon: “Ominous is not quite the word for a situation where one of the most consistently unpopular politicians in American history suddenly skyrockets to Folk Hero status while his closest advisors are being caught almost daily in Nazi-style gigs that would have embarrassed Martin Bormann.”

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The message booms as resoundingly as that blast in Woody Creek.

MARC WEINGARTEN’S book, “The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism Revolution,” will be published in November by Crown.


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