I have loved Hunter Thompson’s writing ever since, in high school, the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas starring Johnny Depp turned me onto the book of the same name. You don’t forget a sentence like, “We were somewhere around Barstow when the drugs began to take hold.” And you shouldn’t dismiss him, as some critics have, as a sloppy, self-indulgent, drug-indulging hack. He took a lot of drugs, drank too much, loved guns and women and excess in general, and was a bit of a maniac to be sure, an imperfect character if there ever was one. It is sad that these facts obscure his real talent. Here are some of the reasons why you should read his books and take him seriously.
1. He was a master stylist:
He may have been unconventional and undisciplined in his writing, but he was also able to write beautiful poetic prose that was also honest and direct like in his description of the Hell’s Angels from his bestselling book on the subject:
“The Menace is loose again, the Hell’s Angels, the hundred-carat headline, running fast and loud on the early morning freeway, low in the saddle, nobody smiles, jamming crazy through traffic and ninety miles an hour down the center stripe, missing by inches…like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given; show the squares some class, give em a whiff of those kicks they’ll never know…”
Thompson knew how to grab the reader’s attention, how to rope them in with strong imagery and descriptions that brought the reader into the action (helped along by Ralph Steadman’s manic and surreal illustrations). He claimed that he learned to write by retyping The Great Gatsby over and over and over. What he took away from masters of prose like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and others was precisely the beauty of their writing and the honesty (through fiction) of what they were trying to say about their subjects and their time. This mix was central to Thompson’s writing as a whole.
2. He spoke truth to power:
Thompson believed in the power of the written word and saw himself as a patriot and a political activist as much as a writer. He used his wit and skill with words to enormous effect in a mission to inform people but also to change the status quo. He rallied in favor of Civil Rights, and against the Vietnam War, the Nixon Administration, later the Bush Administration and probably most notably the perversity that could exist in American culture and politics. He seemed to never be afraid to tell the truth (weirdly mutated through fiction), and hardly ever held back a punch.
Take his description of Richard Nixon who he saw as embodying all the worst aspects of the dark side of America:
“For years I’ve regarded his existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless; I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.”
Thompson believed in action as much as he did in words. In 1970, he ran for the office of sheriff of Aspen, Colorado. Though he lost, he understood the value of trying to challenging corrupt authority. He stayed involved in local politics for the rest of his life, believing that this was the place where real change could take place. National politics had failed him too many times to be involved directly, but he always wrote about it, as addicted to politics as he was to his many other vices.
3. He exaggerated (and lied) for a purpose:
During a group discussion of the 1972 presidential campaign at which Thompson was present, a fellow journalist quipped that Thompson’s s book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 was the least factual and most accurate account of the campaign.
Thompson invented a whole new form of journalism, which he dubbed ‘Gonzo’, that was not reliant on a factual account of events but on exaggeration in order to hold up a mirror to society and shake it forcibly out of its sheepish slumber. It was all about involving the author in the story to get straight to the heart of it. It also did not shy away from bias. Thompson was a great supporter of George McGovern (pictured below with Thompson) and showed his detest for the other candidates in his writing.
One of the most famous examples of this was Thompson starting a rumor that one of the Democratic candidates during the 1972 primary, Edward Muskie, was taking a rare drug called Iboigane that was causing his bizarre behavior at the time.
“I immediately recognized The Ibogaine Effect — from Muskie’s tearful breakdown on the flatbed truck in New Hampshire, the delusions and altered thinking that characterized his campaign in Florida, and finally the condition of “total rage” that gripped him in Wisconsin.”
Muskie was probably not taking Iboigane. Thompson later admitted that he had totally made it up. But, what he saw as tiny lies were in the service of larger truths, in this case the total incompetence of Muskie as a candidate and his probable unsuitability to be President.
Gonzo relied not only on well-meaning falsehoods but on exaggeration. Often Thompson’s descriptions are so lush it is obvious that he is embellishing for effect. A great example is this famous passage from his article on the Kentucky Derby in 1970 where he tells his illustrator, Ralph Steadman:
“‘That whole thing,’ I said, ‘will be jammed with people; ﬁfty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene–thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and ﬁghting with broken whiskey bottles.’
The point of this was more than satire. He wanted to show just how ugly America and Americans could be in order for them to hopefully realize it and change their behavior. What many people saw as extravagant and over-the-top writing, quite disturbing and vicious at times, served a very specific political purpose, not unlike the satirical writing of Jonathan Swift of Mark Twain.
4. He understood what was going on:
Thompson always seemed to know which way the wind was blowing. He realized the true nature of the Hell’s Angels when others in sixties counterculture naively saw them as allies. He announced the death of that counterculture’s dream of peace and fairness in the election of Richard Nixon, and long before Watergate he knew Nixon to be a devious crook. He influenced young people into voting for Jimmy Carter, who he championed in his writing. He even predicted the enormous and far-reaching changes that would happen at home and abroad as a result of the September 11th attacks.
Thompson wrote a bittersweet description of the death of the 1960’s hippy dream in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
“And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
The wave was, for Thompson, the cultural triumph of the silent majority and Richard Nixon, a victory of evil over good, a war he saw in black and white terms. He often pointed out the flaws he saw in the United States at the time: its war crimes in Cambodia and murder of student protesters at Kent State, its hypocrisy, its obsession with image over substance, the dark secrets at the heart of the American dream.
His description of American power during Vietnam perfectly sums up American arrogance:
“America… just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”
5. He was entertaining:
Thompson’s books are fun to read. That is no small thing in the world of political journalism, which can be doth dull and pompous, an incestuous world of cocktail parties and self-congratulation, as crooked in its bias as the politicians on which it reports.
Thompson knew how to tell a good story. And his writing is accessible. It is no wonder I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was an adolescent. He made giving traditional family values the metaphorical finger seem like an enjoyable thing to do, and he did it with tremendous skill:
“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas … with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether.”
Hunter Thompson always wanted to be at the center of the story, to make himself a part of it as much as possible so he could give the reader an unfiltered picture of what he saw to be reality. If his writing was sometimes self-indulgent or sloppy, his brilliance and his tremendous skill made him stand out. This isn’t to say that his writing was always perfect. He could be a very bad writer too. But it’s his moments of brilliance that set him apart and that make him so beloved to so many.