It is the 77th anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson’s birth, and if you are not already lost in the depths of an ether binge, take a moment to remember some of the writer’s great works. Thompson was a notorious consumer of drugs and alcohol and creator of chaos, and his particularly bent approach to journalism even earned its own name: Gonzo.
But it’s not really a genre. Thompson was the only one who was ever a truly successful Gonzo journalist, and even he couldn’t keep it up forever. His instinct was to throw himself over the edge of a situation and try to write his way back.
When he was good, he was very, very good: A manic genius and surreptitious craftsman. Here are four essential Hunter S. Thompson reads.
1. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1972). First published as a two-part series in Rolling Stone, the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was ostensibly about a trip taken by a journalist and his attorney to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race and a narcotics officers’ convention but ended up being mostly about their wild ride. The book introduced Thompson’s drug-addled, hallucinatory yet generally cogent writing style to a wide audience and was the first place he described it as Gonzo. The book begins, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive....” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
2. “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs” (1966). There is a photograph of young buttoned-down Thompson carrying a briefcase-size reel-to-reel tape recorder from this time, and if it’s hard to imagine how that young man became the later mad “Fear and Loathing” force, this book serves to explain it. After publishing a story on them in The Nation, Thompson basically embedded himself with Bay Area Hells Angels for about a year, joining them on their adventures with motorcycles, drugs, alcohol and violence. The gang, which would become infamous as the ‘60s wore on, eventually invited Thompson to move on by giving him a vicious beating.
3. “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72" (1973). Thompson’s chronicle of the 1972 presidential race between George McGovern and incumbent Richard Nixon originally appeared in Rolling Stone during the campaign itself. With his genuine reporting efforts often foiled -- getting anywhere near Nixon was all but impossible -- Thompson turned to heartfelt political invective when he wasn’t getting lyrically loaded or veering into total fantasy. Thompson wrote, “there is hardly a paragraph in this jangled saga that wasn’t produced in a last-minute, teeth-grinding frenzy. There was never enough time. Every deadline was a crisis. All around me were experienced professional journalists meeting deadlines far more frequent than mine, but I was never able to learn from their example.” Writing something different from other journalists -- heedless, destructive, thrilling -- was the point. (His efforts succeeded partly thanks to Timothy Crouse, the young minder Rolling Stone sent along to keep Thompson in line, and who produced his own excellent book about the experience, “The Boys on the Bus.”)
4. His obituary for Richard M. Nixon in Rolling Stone (1994). After the mid-1970s, Thompson’s talents were increasingly obscured by the substances that had once given them their momentum -- but in late life, after the death of Nixon, he was able to summon some of his old gifts for his favorite nemesis. “He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning,” he wrote with freewheeling animus. "...but I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.”
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