Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo

From a Wall Street Journal review by Benjamin Shull of the book “Savage Journey: Hunter  S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo” by Peter Richardson:

In the spring of 1970 Hunter S. Thompson descended on Churchill Downs to write about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly. The article that resulted, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” didn’t so much cover the race as present an outlandish image of the scene on hand. In turbocharged first-person prose, accompanied by macabre illustrations by Ralph Steadman, Thompson narrates his experience of arriving in Kentucky and gawking at the wanton and gluttonous crowd.  Thompson’s friend Bill Cardoso, the editor of Boston Globe magazine, wrote to share his compliments: “You’ve changed everything. It’s totally Gonzo.”

In “Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo,” Peter Richardson traces the development of a unique literary genre in the context of its lead practitioner’s life and work. Thompson (1937-2005) honed a highly subjective style of journalism in which he played the protagonist and took part in the action while recounting events in a manic, rhetorically outrageous manner. Contrasting his style with the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, Thompson wrote that his peer was “too crusty to participate in his stories.”…

Thompson was born in Louisville, Ky. After graduating from high school—he missed the ceremony because he was in jail on a robbery charge—he joined the Air Force, where he developed a penchant for sportswriting. A series of journalism jobs followed his 1957 discharge, including a stint in Puerto Rico. He also lived briefly in Big Sur on the California coast, which provided literary inspiration for two of his idols, the writers Jack Keroac and Henry Miller. In the meantime he met and married Sandy Conklin, with whom he had a son, Juan. The couple settled in San Francisco in 1964.

Mr. Richardson, who has written books about the Grateful Dead and the muckraking magazine Ramparts, has a superb grasp of 1960s Bay Area culture. One of the central conceits of “Savage Journey” is that Thompson’s years in San Francisco were formative in the development of his style. Here we find Thompson sending a rejected review of Wolfe’s first collection of essays directly to the author. He also made the acquaintance of Ken Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1962), whose antics with the Merry Pranksters would be chronicled in Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1968)….

Thompson’s first book, 1967’s “Hell’s Angels,” grew out of an article he wrote for the Nation. For over a year, Thompson rode with and documented the exploits of the titular outlaw motorcycle club, though the relationship culminated in a beating from several members. The book shows Thompson developing his style. “The Hell’s Angels project,” Mr. Richardson writes, “was an important step toward the complex blend of journalism and fiction that would become his signature.” Thompson’s conscious decision to tag along with a biker gang also gave him a reputation for bravery—and a bestseller.

Mr. Richardson discusses three key developments that took place around the publication of “Hell’s Angels.” First, Thompson moved to Woody Creek, Colo., which he would call home for the rest of his life. Second, the first issue of Rolling Stone, which would run some of Thompson’s most famous reportage, hit newsstands. Lastly, he went to Chicago for the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where he witnessed the anti-Vietnam War protests and police crackdown.

His first piece for Rolling Stone was “The Battle of Aspen,” published a few months after the Kentucky Derby article. “Aspen” describes the city’s 1969 mayoral campaign and Thompson’s own platform, a year later, running for county sheriff on the “Freak Power” ticket. Though he would lose that contest, he would find in President Nixon a reliable outlet for his political energies going forward.

Thompson reached his peak with his 1971 novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” followed by “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.” Both books would feature artwork by Mr. Steadman, whose drawings, Mr. Richardson writes, “combined with Thompson’s fevered prose to raise Gonzo journalism to a new and more demented level.” The Las Vegas book, which developed out of a botched magazine assignment to cover an offroad race, recounts a series of drug-fueled misadventures….

In “Campaign Trail,” Thompson turned his breakthrough into a franchise. Beyond cataloging the sins of his nemesis Nixon, the book details the author’s fondness for the eventual Democratic nominee George McGovern. It also features a fantastical rumor—started by Thompson himself—that Maine senator and Democratic contender Ed Muskie was addicted to a mystery drug called ibogaine. McGovern would lose in a landslide to Nixon, who would resign the presidency two years later.

Thompson’s most productive period coincided with Nixon’s White House tenure. Though his style reached its apogee in the Nevada desert and on the campaign trail, Mr. Richardson’s valuable study suggests that San Francisco, where Thompson took an assignment to write about a motorcycle gang, would prove his greatest touchstone. And if “Las Vegas” was more madly subjective and stylistically crazed than “Hell’s Angels,” it also burdened Thompson with living up to the Raoul Duke persona.

Mr. Richardson is clear on his subject’s character flaws, including his cruelty to friends and family. (He and Sandy divorced in 1980 and Thompson later married Anita Bejmuk.) Fame brought out the worst in him, and drugs and alcohol took their toll. In 1974 he traveled to Zaire to cover the Rumble in the Jungle. Unable to make it ringside, Thompson instead chose to float in the hotel swimming pool, missing out on Muhammad Ali’s knockout of George Foreman. Mr. Richardson dubs this failure to show up “an absurd defeat for the Gonzo franchise,” a low moment in the life of a most unusual man of letters.

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