Hunter S. Thompson is one of the great American writers, muddling (and somehow transcending) genres like journalism and fiction. Superficially, Thompson is a madman. But peel away a layer of language and a layer of meaning, and revealed is biting Public Moralist channeling the best traditions of Mark Twain, Ernst Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This book is a collection of his letters, written between 1968 and 1976, the height of his career, when he transforms himself from an obscure journalist barely managing to publish a book on the Hell’s Angels, to a cultural celebrity bordering on a societal archetype.
His best work comes from this period of his life. It’s heady stuff, that veers between crude craziness/ insane hyperbole to profound insights and highly technical blizzard-like assaults on public figures and institutions. Though and through, it’s amazingly funny. Refreshingly so.
Part of the secret of this is the idea of Gonzo Journalism, which Thompson not only invented, but has pretty much monopolized. You can’t write gonzo journalism without people assuming you are simply cribbing off of Thompson’s work.
Gonzo is journalism that plays upon the commonly held assumption that journalism and journalists must be ‘objective’. Gonzo is journalism played as extreme subjectivity. To me this signals that Thompson is a key figure in post-modernism. I mean that a society with ‘modernist’ beliefs hold dear to the idea of an ‘objective’ media/journalism. To savagely attack this idea, indeed, all meta-narratives, is a key feature of post-modernist thought.
Something that amazed me was the sheer volume and scale of his letters. In an age of email, txt, and twitter, these are massive missives which seem bizarrely luxurious and verbose. The common feature of famous people and authors having their letters published is almost certainly dead; there is simply no one writing like this anymore. Thompson may pretty much be the last.
In these letters, you see Thompson attempting to transform his burgeoning fame into actual wealth and influence, which sadly remains outside his grasp. I couldn’t tell you why. But more than that, you witness a man struggling against an increasingly corporate and artificial/legalistic world that is shutting down personal connections and the “human touch”.
For page after page, he will rail and rant on some anonymous lawyer attempting to collect, say a hotel bill, or against an editor who Thompson perceives to be a bit of an ass.
This book is exhilarating but also sad. HST is probably one of the few people who hobnobbed with the best of the best – like Jimmy Carter – and some of the weirdest nobodies ever. HST remains an enigma to everyone. Even at the height of his fame – and pumping out his best stuff – he seems frantic, unsuccessful, disappointed. He remains on the fringe, even as he becomes a public figure. He never seems to really “find a home” in his economic or social world.
It’s also very much as you would expect HST’s letters to be. And that’s pretty cool.