I would like to start a new category, a simple book (and perhaps a movie or two) review gig. I plan to write a review of every book that passes through my hands. And the way the timing worked out what, we’ll be starting with volume one of Hunter S. Thompson’s collected writings.
“The Great Shark Hunt” is actually quite a large book, coming in at around just under six hundred pages. It is a mix of excerpts from his primary books, such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Hell’s Angels,” and “Fear and Loathing On the 1972 Campaign Trail,” and spattered collections of articles of various lengths and for various magazines and publishers.
Thus it represents a fairly complex cross-section of Thompson’s writings. Earlier writings, which are tame, yet interesting. Second, his lesser-known articles which are still ‘classical’ Thompson, yet are not particularly notable, and lastly, the high/crazy well known “Gonzo Journalism” pieces.
I should probably try to explain Gonzo Journalism here. Essentially, its a heavily overhauled conception of “journalism” and a perception of “truth” that draws from Walt Whitman and a host of other poet-romantics. The idea then, is not to attempt a neutral/strict recording of facts or actions (which is immediately suspect), but rather, to describe the truth of the event in question. Gonzo Journalism attempts to report on existential truths. For example, Richard Nixon in Gonzo’s conception is not simply “The Republican Candidate for President” (say), but rather, a plastic and cruel man that personifies the viscousness of the American psyche in the turbulence of the Sixties and the Vietnam War.
Its a product of the Sixties and the idea that certain drugs are capable of “breaking through” ontological boundaries and revealing the truth of existence. We know this as “consciousness expansion” and there was a time when this idea was taken quite seriously by what we might call the elite of early drug culture. For example: Aldous Huxley.
The last element of Gonzo is that the journalist is and should be the protagonist or main/major character in the piece. Because the mere presence of a “normal” journalist effects events (actions and events are staged for the reporter; the press generates its own news etc); any attempt at “neutral” reporting is prima facie quite absurd. Thus the Gonzo journalist becomes closer to the truth by abounding pretences of non-intervention and neutrality. Gonzo journalism is about the “feel”, the “vibes”, and pits one man’s truth and experience against everyone else’s.
His truth is as true as any other’s truth. If that makes any sense at all.
The result is that Thompson’s best known works are crazed, drug-fueled encounters with mainstream America like The Kentucky Derby, Las Vegas, presidential campaigns, and big-time sports (football and boxing). The result is often bizarre, chaotic, over-whelming even.
But this is the entire point Thompson is after in his writing. I suspect that a majority of readers either dismiss Thompson as just ‘drug culture’ or just drug zany-ness, or they read Thompson for his shock-jockey style of writing. Neither interpretation is correct; far from it.
In the first instance, Thompson is trying to push you; he is trying to shock you and put you on the defensive. It’s a bit like a litmus test: he wants you to be able to speak his language (and therefore share his point of view). Frankly, the writings are largely indecipherable to “conservative” America: “flaky gibberish” to borrow Thompson’s own phrase.
Second, Thompson knows exactly what he is doing. And his encounters with mainstream America are attempts to hold up a magic mirror to the “soul” of America and show us how ugly it is. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” can be read as a hilarious drug binge in Vegas. But when you read between the lines, as it were, Thompson’s alter-ego Raoul Duke is investigating the state of the American Dream. It is no coincidence it turns out to be a burned-out nightclub.
The crazed, surreal viscousness that is a hallmark of Thompson’s style is ultimately an try at describing the “truth” of American society in the early ’70s. It is powerful stuff; out of nowhere, Thompson is capable of going on a very heavy, extremely insightful description of what the American reality is. His drug fantasies simple mirror the militaristic/Wild West/conformist fantasies of mainstream America.
Thompson is funny, insightful, yes, very crazy, but right (oh-so-right) far too often to ignore.