Hunter S. Thompson (1998)

A review of The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters Volume One

Some time during the nineteen-sixties, the voice of American journalism went through a radical change. Tom Wolfe christened the phenomenon "the New Journalism", and in a triumphant essay claimed that non-fiction writers had, after years of being treated as second-class citizens, finally taken the literary high-ground away from the novelists. Wolfe pointed to the new stylistic freedom given to writers by hip magazines like Jan Wenner's Rolling Stone, and suggested that the massive popularity of long, highly-coloured, idiosyncratic features was linked to the novel's failure to address the sudden shift in "manners and morals" taking place in American culture.

For Wolfe, the New Journalism was defined by the appearance of all kinds of 'literary' devices in non-fiction writing, but chiefly by an unwillingness to adopt the traditional journalistic tone of polite neutrality:
The voice of the narrator, in fact, was one of the great problems in non-fiction writing. Most non-fiction writers, without knowing it, wrote in a century-old British tradition in which it was understood that the narrator shall assume a calm, cultivated and, in fact, genteel voice. The idea was that the narrator's own voice should be like the off-white or putty-coloured walls that Syrie Maugham popularised in interior decoration ... a 'neutral background' against which bits of colour would stand out.

Wolfe's influential essay made the business of 'voice' appear as if it was simply a matter of style, a confident new generation cutting a dash as if trying on a linguistic version of one of his own well-cut suits. While this surface stylishness characterises Wolfe's own voice, with its caustic social observations and bravura displays of writerly technique, for other writers the chance to speak in an unmediated first person fulfilled a more urgent necessity. It allowed Michael Herr, on assignment in Vietnam for Esquire and Rolling Stone, to write movingly about his own terror and confusion as he drifted through the war zone, sharing the lives of ordinary soldiers. It allowed Joan Didion, in The White Album, to weave details of her anxious upscale-Californian life into a startling account of the collapse of sixties idealism. But of all the writers who flourished in the formal openness of the New Journalism, no one took the voice of the journalist further away from 'neutral background' (or seemed less able to stop himself doing it) than Hunter S. Thompson.

Even at the start of his career, editing the sports section of an airforce base newspaper, neutrality was not Thompson's strong-point; a 1957 personnel report noted that the young airman-journalist "leans so strongly to critical editorializing that it was necessary to require that all his writing be thoroughly edited before release" Worse crimes against objectivity were to come. After the airforce, Thompson travelled around America, sometimes writing for newspapers, often broke, always obsessively working on The Rum Diary, the novel he hoped would make his name. Ironically Thompson's fictional ambitions were gradually absorbed into the journalism and the Rum Diary has remained unpublished until now, almost forty years after its composition. A hard-bitten story of love, journalism and heavy drinking, it never strays too far from Thompson's own life. The pull of the real was already exerting itself on the twenty-two year old writer.

Though he was filing reasonably conventional copy for his various employers, his tendency to attract trouble, usually involving some combination of trouble's classic cinematic elements - drugs, alcohol, cars, guns and attractive women, meant that his presence in a situation often produced events far more interesting than those he was supposed to be covering. Later in his career the 'story' as independent entity was to disappear almost entirely from his work, which became a fractured series of tales about Hunter (mad bad and dangerous to know) and what he did (inspired, erratic, paranoid) in particular situations. His uncanny ability to articulate the undercurrent of 'fear and loathing' running through America ultimately led to his adoption as a kind of truthsaying holy fool for the counterculture.

Thompson became internationally famous in 1966 for his portrait of Californian motorcycle gangs in Hells Angels, and his work reached a kind of frenzied peak in the early seventies with his repeated savagings of Richard Nixon and the hallucinogen-fuelled attempt to 'cover' a desert road race which became Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. Material which in other hands would be solipsistic and self-serving - after all, there's nothing as boring as other people's drug stories - has paradoxically always been anchored by Thompson's strong journalistic skills. His strong reporting, humour, and political sense have made his "gonzo" version of the New Journalism the most widely-imitated style in nineties feature-writing. Sadly the self-confidence Tom Wolfe identified thirty years ago has largely degenerated into self-abuse, as myriad wannabe-gonzos recount the minutiae of their dining and travel arrangements, under the illusion that the world (and their stories) will be the better for the information. Meanwhile, Thompson himself is now a kind of American national treasure, ensconsed in his Aspen ranch toking joints, shooting guns, receiving visits from tremulous profilers, and occasionally emerging to traumatise bureaucrats, bigots, politicians, penpushers, yes-men, and anyone else who could be reasonably accused of following the herd rather than making their own decisions. He is already, at 60, the subject of several published biographies, all of which he reportedly hates.

So the appearance of a book of Thompson's letters is exciting for various reasons. It acts firstly as the author's blast against the biographers, but also as a peculiar intervention into the whole business of Hunter S. Thompson and the journalist's voice. For a writer who has made a stylised, steroid-enhanced first person the centre of his work, publishing a collection of personal letters is not without its risks. Thompson is not some shadowy author, hiding his personal life behind a veil of fiction, nor is he even a retiring one, stepping aside to let his subjects speak for themselves. No, the world has had almost forty years of the supposedly unmediated textual "I" of Hunter S. Thompson, in every conceivable mode and mood from forthright harangue to gibbering in the corner. So is the newly-revealed intimate "I" of the letters going to be just more of the same? Or if not, if letter-Thompson is different from essay, article, preface and interview Thompson, isn't that going to be a big let-down - the discovery that while everyone believed in his freakshow version of himself, ol' Hunter was just hamming all along? It seems Thompson has everthing to lose and little to gain.

Instead, The Proud Highway is something of a triumph, not just a fascinating account of the social and political upheavals of its time (1955-67), but of the strange progress of Thompson's self-construction. Comprising nearly seven hundred pages of text, the book covers just twelve years of his epistolary output. The editor estimates that in total his man has written twenty-thousand letters in his lifetime, which is almost one a day since birth if you give young Hunter credit for starting early. It is only volume one of The Fear and Loathing Letters, and stops just as the author is finding his stride, getting famous by writing Hells Angels. The best stuff, written out of the dark, hallucinated, polyester-clad sodom of the early seventies, is surely yet to come.

A first clue to the high weirdness which unravels in The Proud Highway can be found in an unsent 1959 letter that twenty-one year old Hunter, newly-fired from a local newspaper job for kicking a vending machine, pens to one of his many girlfriends. In the middle of a long romantic ramble he muses "The Hunterfigure has come to another fork in the road and the question once again is 'where do we go from here'?" This is more than your common-or-garden rhetorical third person. The appearance of the 'Hunterfigure' prophesies doom for any reader foolish enough to stash these letters in a box marked 'life' next to another marked 'work'. For the Hunterfigure, which at twenty-one exists for Thompson only in an embryonic form, is of course destined to grow into a fully-fledged persona (think Frankenstein's monster in a Hawaiian shirt with a bellyful of tequila), that will entirely colonise the first person singular in his published writing.
The fascination of 'The Proud Highway' lies in watching the Hunterfigure's spawning, dripfed on Thompson's own diet of booze, insomnia, target practice and hatred of authority. Perhaps it's no stranger than watching any other writer find a voice, but it seems something both compelling and slightly disturbing that it should be letters, personal communications with lovers, friends and relatives, that serve as the petri dish for growing this most public of personae.

Sooner or later as you read 'The Proud Highway' the gnawing suspicion creeps up on you that Hunter S. Thompson no longer exists. He has been done away with, buried under the floorboards at Owl Farm, and the Hunterfigure, all nervous energy and itchy trigger finger, has taken over. This perhaps just a way of saying that these letters are continuous with Thompson's published essays and articles, rather than standing in some simple private/public opposition to them. To an extent it's just a more fraught version of the problem a reader faces with any book of letters, especially a reader who practises the gruelling ontological judo inaugurated by the death of the author. The letter-book's confection of authority, intimacy and claims to authenticity make it a particularly slippery opponent. Just how private are such writings? What sort of editorial process has produced their simulations of intimacy? And what has been left out? Any chance of pinning down these worthy critical issues, or even getting a finger grip on their oily bodies, goes straight to hell when Thompson is the letter-writer. There is an alternative reading, which is that all this business of Thompson and the Hunterfigure is just a poststructuralist red herring, and the great gonzo 'really' is, in some uncomplicated way, how he appears on the page. Although plausible enough (Thompson isn't impossible, just unlikely), this would be a disturbing conclusion, given the frequent appearance of comments like the following, to high-school buddy Paul Semonin:
I would give a ball to wake up tomorrow on some empty ridge with a herd of beatniks grazing in the clearing about 200 yards below the house. And then to squat with the big boomer and feel it on my shoulder with the smell of grease and powder and, later, a little blood. I have come to the point where I think I could kill humans as easily as deer or wild pigs
Scary, macho, unhinged - and suddenly hilarious when you examine the context and discover that this less psychopathology than literary criticism, a response to a "stupid shitty book by Kerouac called 'Big Sur'". So maybe Thompson doesn't literally want to carpet the hillsides of Aspen with the slaughtered corpses of poets and bongo-players.

Or maybe he does. Judging the degree of leg-pull in any Thompson letter is far from easy. The young writer doesn't seem to have a voice, more a male-voice choir, or perhaps just a multiple personality disorder. One minute he can appear frothing and dangerous, then in the next breath will swoonily write to a girlfriend who seems to inspire a saccharine streak in him, "you're ... still the same Ann Frick I remember from what now seems a million hazy dreams ago...". Just when you are comfortable with the oscillation between Byronic hellraiser and lovelorn "Hunty", you stumble upon the version of Thompson who writes to his mother. (yes, Hunter S. Thompson has a mother, another of the joyous discoveries in this book). Strapped for cash in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he has schmoozed his way into a job as a sports reporter, he confides that "the main problem here is clothes. Everything is frightfully expensive and no one on the island can tell me where to get a cord suit ... would it be possible for you to buy one there and send it to me? Make it my birthday present..." Add 'Virginia Thompson's boy' to the list of roles.

Early on these characters seem weirdly separate, hats the young Thompson is trying on. Gradually, through the course of the years of The Proud Highway they are all assimilated by the Hunterfigure, which bolts them together and deploys the resulting personality as a satirical weapon of mass destruction. Son, lover and lone gunman are, however, not its only components. In his twenties, Thompson experiments with textual moods based on the styles of writers like HL Mencken, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac and Dos Passos. He makes intense studies of several of these men, typing out long passages of their works to get a feel for their music. The substance of the letters he writes between bouts of typing seems, understandably, to depend as much on who he's reading as what he might be feeling. I can't shake the image of Thompson's early reading as a kind of chemistry experiment, dashes of one writer shaken together with another to produce the magic formula - which young Hunter then guzzles, writhing and convulsing, to re-emerge as fully-fledged Doctor Gonzo.

The Hunterfigure is also able to draw on some very funny role-playing routines in which Thompson writes as something approaching a straightforward 'character'. Enter the millennial nutcase who answers threatening letters from debt collectors with religious rantings ("This atomic fallout is God's WRATH! With the end of the world right on top of us, I can't afford to work"), and the dope dealer who has misunderstood an article in the Village Voice ("Say man, I'm bein' bugged by the police and your damn paper's the cause of it all"). After a while you just have to accept that the Thompson isle is full of voices, stop trying to distinguish them all, and sit back to enjoy the trip. What does it matter who is speaking?

Thompson's first person is not usually deployed for mere showing off, though he does a good deal of that. It has a more embattled, subversive quality. The Proud Highway shows him in mortal verbal combat with editors, neighbours, landlords and vendors of faulty goods, laying into each with demonic relish. Each contest, however doomed or trivial, is conducted with dogged tenacity. Grievances are listed, failings are itemised, the guilty are held to account. "Gentlemen: I cannot tolerate the horrifying color combination of the checks and check holder you sent me." "Sir: I would appreciate knowing if you mean to continue the stupid, vicious "Zip Code" system." A telling feature of these spats (whose occasions range from magazine rejections to the Book of the Month Club's attempt to collect a debt) is their bizarre personal quality. Instead of replying in the language of bland objectivity in which institutions communicate with little people, Thompson persists in treating the bank, the State Department, the Postmaster General's Office, as if they were individuals, susceptible to humour, flattery, wheedling or plain browbeating.

Thompson's harangues are exactly at odds with the style of the impersonal bureaucracies he takes on, which is why they can also be cruelly sharp instruments of satire. Bureaucracies dissipate responsibility through hierarchies and webs of group decision-making. They tend to lean heavily on the rhetoric of impersonality and objectivity, and on the illusion that their actions are somehow the unfoldings of cosmic destiny rather than the outcome of some arbitary, whimsical internal process. So Thompson's seemingly perverse insistence on face-to-face confrontation can expose layers of cant and hypocrisy. In 1964 he jokingly offers his services to President Johnson as governor of Samoa ("My position at this time is in flux enough to allow my serious consideration of such a move"), then withdraws the offer in protest at the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Scolding LBJ ("start acting like a thinking human instead of a senile political beast") Thompson, at this point an obscure hack, places himself on the next metaphorical barstool to the President, insisting on his right to address the administration as an equal, rather than be dazzled by its spectacle.

The very instability of the Hunterfigure's persona, irascible, hyperbolic, given to acting on impulse, makes it the perfect foil to the icy calm behind which big organisations mask their crimes. Thompson's determination to confront The Man man-to-man, restores a kind of emotional bottom line to social and political situations where most 'objective' commentators fall in love with complexity and fail to draw conclusions. Lack of emotional engagement seems, throughout The Proud Highway, to be the crime which Thompson abhors above all others, and he makes it his business to punish it. Again and again he insists that things happen because people, particular individual people, make them happen. And if you don't like what people do, you should confront them. When applied to the smoke-and-mirrors world of US politics it is a salutary lesson, which also just happens to tap into some popular old-fashioned American ideas about true grit, individual liberty and plain talking.

Perhaps in the end the true voice of Hunter S Thompson, as revealed in The Proud Highway is that of the Hunterfigure as American moralist. It is telling that Thompson's first twinning of 'fear and loathing', words which have become something of a catchphrase (and title these letters) was in response to the assassination of John Kennedy. Like all the best clowning, Thompson's serves a serious purpose.

Certainly Thompson is a peculiarly misshapen sort of moralist, one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him. Sometimes he's just ugly for the sake of it. This means that at times in The Proud Highway he comes over as an out-and-out asshole, whining about money, boring people about his unpublished novels, making a drunken fool of himself and generally using the facilities and not cleaning up afterwards. His prodigious intake of drugs and alcohol, coupled with his love of guns, speed and what one high-school teacher refered to as his "show-off Marlon Brando swagger", has led to him being canonised by hedonists around the globe, who have made him a poster-boy for the 'party until they drop the bomb' tendency. For the same reasons he is largely dismissed by those who require their writers to behave like grown-ups. So the Hunterfigure is both Thompson's greatest asset and his greatest liability.

Personally I'm all in favour of untrammelled hedonism, though having said that, I wouldn't want to be Thompson's lawyer, or his dry cleaner. Still, after reading The Proud Highway, even the most buttoned-down compulsive tidier should be able to appreciate the Hunterfigure's valuable social role. Thompson's capacity for mayhem is just a minor side effect of a personality that functions as an efficient machine for exposing liars and hypocrites. A few missed nights sleep and the occasional broken window seem like a small price to pay.

A version of this piece appeared in the London Review of Books