Hunter S. Thompson

An American travesty, a blizzard of wrongful joy. On the occasion of the Doctor's elevation to literary respectability, a disciple pays homage to the savage beast of American journalism

By Cintra Wilson

Published November 11, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

"But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country — but only for those with true grit." — HST, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"

there are a few heroic men in the world whose children I would want to bear.
Hunter S. Thompson is not one of them. I imagine his progeny entering the world in a blur of violence, like infant hyenas who, having been steeping in testosterone during their entire stint in the womb, clamber out of the hatch snarling and savaging their siblings in a blind fit of eat-or-die. This is certainly true of Thompson's literature, and what made him a Great Man, and a Doctor of Journalism.

Random House has just re-released "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the manuscript that is widely held to be the Duke of Gonzo's magnum opus, as a Modern Library Classic. As pivotal and ingenious as this book is, and as deserving it may be of being referred to as "Classic Literature," this still feels tantamount to naming a 40 oz. bottle of Ballantine Ale a "Fine Wine" or finding an exceptional "Hustler" centerfold on a wall of the Smithsonian. Gonzo, like a King of Malt Liquors or Pieta of Smut, is its own autonomous, yet equally important and relevant, Thing.

Hunter Thompson's writing is to classic literature what Survival Research Laboratories is to classic taxidermy. It's a freeze-dried robot dog that shoots shrapnel out of its eyes, sputters around dangerously 20 feet in the air on whirling razor-sharp helio-blades, pisses down motor oil and sparks and finally explodes over the audience into shreds of charred muscle and hot chips of bolt. It is not a noble Laborador mounted on a burlwood plaque with a mallard duck in its jaws and big glass eyes full of "Master."

I wouldn't think Gonzo journalism had any use for the legitimate laurels of the book world. Gonzo is the Poetic Arsonist, the Outlaw as Man-of-Action as Pariah as Arteest. Gonzo doesn't need approval from the Old Boy Squad. Nonetheless, it knows that life is so cheap, perverse and embarrassing that it would be stupid to turn down honors and money for something as lame as an Artistic Attitude.

Thompson created a world. His world is a G.I. Joe planet of hazardous chemicals, loud motorcycles, large handguns, and pimp cars, where women are tattooed liabilities and children are only useful as skeet. The language of Gonzo is a warning to clear the sick and weak off of the game board. O Politico, says the Gonzo journalist, let me gore the steely tusk of my language through the thickness of your nattering and laugh as your dumb mendacity dribbles out your ear and into my football thermos. Let me become lousy with barbiturates and paw your wife. Gonzo language created a macho lexicon of new verbal weapons, spontaneous and crude: a handful of bullets in a crew sock, a carburetor wrapped in a hooker's tube top to be drunkenly swung about the clubhouse in the weeds. Cowards and faggots will be skinned and broiled like fat rabbits over the bonfire of newsprint. When the sun comes up, you can beg the Great Magnet for pity. Don't look for it here.

Let me, says Thompson, as loathsome anti-hero-cum-respected-elder-statesman, expose your socio-political-economic reality as the sewer of lies and wanton tripe that it really is, for I have wrestled upon the mount with Gods both good and completely untrustworthy and they have made me custodian of the "Awful Psychic Orgasm," that peak from which all other experience falls off into mist or flame and evaporates like a waterfall of cheap hair spray. Despair, for your truth is fodder for my great spittoon, which I molded with a blowtorch out of your dead father's skull. Heh heh.

The hailing of Thompson's work as an "American Classic" coincides rather tragically with the complete disintegration of his persona and talent. All those years of living like Indiana-Jones-as-Misanthropic-Speed-Freak have finally caught up with him, and have dried all of the marrow out of his writing as well as the fluid from his spine. His work now is unintelligible and depressing, and his persona has become as thrash-happy and pitiable as Muhammad Ali's. He was one of Kerouac's fabulous roman candles, and is now just an oily wad of ash.

It is, of course, painfully obvious that I aspire from wishful peon depths to someday be a Doctor of Gonzo Journalism. As much as I may slander the Great Thug for being verbally toothless and gout-ridden, there is little doubt in my mind that if I saw him in a restaurant I'd shed tears of awe and try to shine his shoes with my hair.

No one influenced me more. When I was a teen and had decided that there was no literature on the planet savvy, clever or powerful enough to entertain my enormous teen mind, I was introduced to "Fear and Loathing" by the class acne creep, the stoned-alone-every-lunch Heavy Metal masturbator of my 8th-grade experience. I looked down to find him transcribing the book's opening chapter, word for word, from memory, on my notebook. All he said was "This is THE BOOK."

Intrigued, I got "Fear and Loathing" and read the rest of it. It seized me with a big pair of animal hooks, smacked into me with such force my footwear flew into the street, and maced my sensibilities until the can ran dry. To this day, my love for Gonzo is too terrifyingly high-voltage and dangerously intense to be contained by my small female body. I would have to enact a hysterical bout of spasmic keening and clothes-rending to express it, like a girl possessed behind a chain-link fence five feet from the Beatles in 1964. Wanton howling and breast-beating would be the only adequate salute I could perform, my head wheeling on its axis like a gyroscope. The barometric pressure would be traumatized, the block would fill with monsoons of hot hail, traffic lights would explode.

Hunter is old and desiccated now. But still, I like to picture him getting the news that he is now a Legitimate Cultural Legend — Some woman with her sleeve torn off and bite marks in her torso answering the phone at the ranch: "Sorry, Hunter can't come to the phone right now. He's self-medicating with the stun baton. He'll call you when his fingernails turn black." (Click.) The Great Man would receive the news while naked save for a $190 pair of huaraches, happily tazing his own peacocks in the back yard for the love of the shriek and sizzle, and the spasm of blue. He'd laugh.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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