Friday, June 28, 2013

Doing The Work: Gonzo

Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith did an interesting in their Hunter S. Thompson biography, Gonzo. They opted not only to eschew the glorification of Thompson as a drug and boozed-soaked lunatic, but to focus solely on what made him important: his work as a journalist. The foreword by his former editor, Alan Rinzler, speaks directly to this. Rinzler laments the mess that Thompson made of himself and how much of his talent he squandered. He feels that Thompson played too much into his pirate/outlaw persona and churned out prose of little consequence in the last 25-30 years of his career. This is an extremely harsh but not totally inaccurate assessment of Thompson's career. Thompson never failed to be wildly entertaining, even when writing fluff for His turns of phrase and wild-eyed & righteous rants kept a reader hooked on every word. The problem with Thompson, as Bingley and Hope-Smith delve into, is that somewhere along the way he simply had done too much damage to himself and those close to him. He lacked the ability or desire to attempt to make a difference again, to use his fearless observational style to, in his words, "get at truth rather than facts". While Thompson's writing was very funny, his real image should have been a figure inspiring fear in the privileged, like the old journalism saying that they want to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". Instead, he wound up as a clown, the seriousness of his great works forgotten.

Bingley and Hope-Smith weave a tight narrative in a fairly brisk 180 pages. It's written from Thompson's point of view in narrative captions. It starts off with an anecdote involving Thompson encountering and standing up to the FBI when he was just nine years old, beginning a lifelong distrust and loathing of authority. From there, it details his early struggles to land work that he could respect (his resignation letter from his first job as a sportswriter in New Jersey is hilarious), later finding himself as part of a wave of protests in the sixties along with the likes of Alan Ginsberg. From there, the book goes from triumph to triumph. First up was his career-making book on the Hell's Angels and the accompanying blowback and beating he received as a result of his description of an Angels gang-rape. Then there was his run for mayor of Aspen, in which he promised to decriminalize marijuana and rip up every attempt at new developers coming in. Amazingly, it took the combined efforts of the Democrats and Republicans to beat him. The next big career touchstone was the classic story "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved", which is one of the greatest pieces of sportswriting ever cobbled together and began his collaboration with the great illustrator Ralph Steadman. From there came his near-disastrous attempt at aiding a Latino uprising in LA with his friend Oscar Acosta and their subsequent and iconic journey to Las Vegas, immortalized in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. In this book, little time is spent on the events depicted in the book, as once again Thompson notes that truth is more important than facts. What he does get at is the immutable notion that his generation had had a chance at effecting real change and simply blew it.

Thompson's last chance at fixing that lost opportunity was documented in the pages of  Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, '72. It discusses his understanding that the only way Richard Nixon was going to lose was if the youth vote came out to oppose him, and it was his influence with that demographic that enabled progressive candidate George McGovern to win the nomination for the Democrats. The ultimate failure of that campaign broke Thompson, I think. "Gonzo" journalism stopped standing for that notion of truth being more important than facts and simply became a sideshow, spawning a wave of incoherent imitators who used it as a platform to talk less about the truth than to bring attention to themselves. The book whips through the 80s, 90s and 00s as a period totally inconsequential to Thompson other than to reveal that his wife left him and hint at the enormous amount of physical pain that he was in. Perhaps in imitation of his hero, Ernest Hemingway, Thompson famously shot and killed himself. That sent a shockwave through a community of writers, bemoaning the fact that a man who had fought so hard had given up. What Bingley and Hope-Smith advance is that Thompson in many ways had given up years earlier. Bingley whips the reader from event to event, using Thompson's voice but downplaying its flourishes and excesses. Hope-Smith's moody drawings are expressive but also stay firmly in the camp of realism, aiming to ground Thompson's adventures and provide a sharp counterpoint to Bingley's mostly terse prose. This is a biography stripped of frippery, and is really more a biography of Thompson's greatest achievements as a serious writer than it is a full account of the man himself. In the end, that's all that's left of him.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like a terrible thing for someone to write criticism of a man in the first person of that man.