In my attempt to eventually finish the Hunter S. Thompson canon (which is roughly halfway finished, give or take a few titles), I recently read Kingdom Of Fear. I had been planning to devote a post to Thompson for quite some time, and as I read the book, this realization struck me: writing about his writing might be very difficult. Someone like Thompson can be so clouded by his/her popular image that the actual output can be lost in the shuffle. This can happen often, depending on the writer. As talented as they were as writers, it's easy to simply visualize Jack Kerouac roaming around the country and F. Scott Fitzgerald throwing his lavish parties. With Hunter S. Thompson, the Raoul Duke/Johnny Depp-popularized mythology can take center stage quite suddenly, overshadowing the talent that made him popular in the first place. It's almost a Catch-22 (another literary idea which overshadows its origins, as Jonathan Franzen mentioned).
As much as I love Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and The Rum Diary, I prefer reading the many essay collections written by Thompson. For one, it's one of my favorite mediums. Also (I'm sure this has been said numerous times), Thompson was one of the greatest essayists ever, even if the more appropriate term is "journalist." I imagine that non-fiction writing teachers may try to discourage students from the gonzo style--immersing themselves in the article from which they should remain impartially detached. The beauty of Thompson's life (based on his works) is that he had no choice but to be involved in a story. However, no matter how immersed he was, there's always the unspoken understanding (at least in my opinion) that he remained detached. This is even true when he explains the events that led to the "99 Day Trial," in which he could have been convicted of drug possession and sexual assault:
"I had been making cranberry and tequila, because the margarita mix had run out. I was in that kind of mood. Let's all have a few margaritas. And she--the sot--she belted them down. We all did, no doubt; that's what it was all about. Some margaritas to celebrate...We were on about the third jug in the blender, or fourth jug, or fifth perhaps, when we switched to cranberry juice, and she had been getting louder and more randy. She was making open cracks to Cat, asking 'Who are you to Hunter?' She grabbed me and said 'Who's this girl? Why is that other girl here? We don't need her around.'
Shortly after Tim left, I reached for the phone and told the Witness, 'Let's call a goddamn taxi for you.' As I dialed the 'T'--in 925-TAXI--she rushed over, knocking the phone down, and cut me off. It was a quick, startling movement. She leaped, surprisingly fast for a rhino, from five or six feet away (Thompson 140-141)."
Yes, at first glance, it's trademark Thompson: colorful events accompanied by mind-altering substances. But read it carefully. In a paragraph and a half, he's described a scene with journalistic, precise details, with slight humorous embellishment ("suprisingly fast for a rhino"). Even though he's personally included in the events, he never dominates to the point of being selfish or going away from the main point of the essay (granted, this is a very brief citation from a much larger piece). In the age of everyone writing memoirs, it's easy to say that almost every published work by Thompson is a memoir (per se), but it's honest journalism at heart. As he's quoted in the forward to Kingdom of Fear: "I am the most accurate journalist you'll ever read (xvi)."
As usual, politics come up frequently in the book. This will be no surprise to anyone familiar with Thompson, but he was not a fan of certain presidents (Nixon, the Bushes, et. al) or conservative ideologies:
"The news is bad today, in America and for America. There is nothing good or hopeful about it--except for Nazis, warmongers, and rich greedheads--and it is getting worse and worse in logarithmic progressions since the fateful bombing of the World Trade Towers in New York. That will always be a festering low-watermark in this nation's violent history (333)."
Passages like these reaffirm my belief that Thompson was among the greatest American patriots in the written language. It is possible to criticize politicians and government actions and still be patriotic. He was a staunch supporter of the first, second, and fourth Amendments, and in his writing, no matter how blistering his critiques of the U.S. government get, there's always a glimmer of optimism that things can improve. I'm sure that if he were alive today, he'd be cheering the departure of Bush and the arrival of Obama. However, he'd be just as hard on the new President has he was on the previous ones, even the ones he supported. This post might be rambling a little, but the beauty of Thompson's work is that it touches on so many themes and events, and the essay collections are next to impossible to "review" (not that a review was my intention).
Thompson, Hunter S. Kingdom of Fear. Copyright 2003 by Gonzo International Corp.