"Once you're gone, you can never come back," wrote Neil Young, just about the only symbol of the 1960s and '70s to defy the rule. Hunter S. Thompson's best books, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72," were, more than Tom Wolfe's or anyone else's, the best gauges of the pulse of those times. To pick them up and open them today is to still feel the heartbeat.
In his new memoir, "Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century," Thompson isn't kidding when he says, "Fear and Loathing" (I assume he means "in Las Vegas") is "as good as 'The Great Gatsby' and better than 'The Sun Also Rises.'" As silly as that might sound, he has every right to feel that way. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing" books evoke the '70s the way Fitzgerald and Hemingway evoked the '20s.
Thompson didn't create a new form of journalism, he just made it seem that way. The so-called new journalism was perhaps the most overrated literary trend of the century. "Hunter Thompson's Gonzo method," as Nathan Ward wrote in American Heritage magazine, "energized and camouflaged the faded art of celebrity journalism with the faux naughtiness of the hard-partying narrator firmly at the story's center." But while other work from the period now seems stilted and forced, Thompson's work survives. He was the only "personal" journalist to follow down the path blazed by the great A.J. Liebling, and the only one with the guts to follow it as far as it could go.
The problem with "Kingdom of Fear," and in fact the problem with nearly everything that Thompson has written over the last quarter of a century or so, is that the path hit a dead end. Here's a passage from "Kingdom of Fear," in which Thompson recalls the fateful Democratic convention of 1968:
"Chicago was the end of the Sixties, for me. I remember going back to my room at the Blackstone, across the street from the Hilton, and sitting cross-legged on my bed for hours at a time. Trembling, unable to make any notes, staring at the TV set while my head kept whirling, out of focus from the things I'd seen happen all around me ... and I could watch it all happening again, on TV; see myself running in stark terror across Michigan Drive, on camera, always two steps ahead of the nearest club-swinging cop and knowing that at any instant my lungs would be shredded by some bullet that would hit me before I could even hear the shot fired."
This isn't bad, particularly the ellipsis followed by "and I could watch it all happening again, on TV." It's an honest recollection of the time and place; you feel like it could only have been written by someone who was there. What the passage doesn't do is remember the event for us, that is, it doesn't make us feel as if we were there. Let's compare it with this passage from "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" ... Well, on second thought, let's not. Go reread the book (currently available in a handsome Modern Library hardcover edition).
What's missing from "Kingdom of Fear"? I hate to use so obvious a word as "inspiration," but that's it. Occasionally, a sentence will pop through and illuminate a page like a tiny starburst; I fell out of my chair when I read "I knew a Buddhist once, and I've hated myself ever since." I couldn't begin to explain why and I really don't want to try, but it's poetry, dammit, and Zen poetry at that. But the starbursts in "Kingdom of Fear" fade quickly (Neil Young, again: "It's better to burn out than fade away"), and we're left with Thompson chugging hard, trying to get us worked up with phrases like "We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world -- a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully" and "it might still be possible to alter the mean, fascist drift of this nation without burning it down in the process." This kind of hyperbolic prose is overheated and underlit; it may tell us how Thompson feels, but it doesn't tell us anything about ourselves or help us understand how to deal with the world we have to live in.
And what's missing most from "Kingdom of Fear" is the object of Thompson's inspiration, the great American asshole, Richard M. Nixon. Thompson is right when he says, presumably writing about "George Dubya," "Let's face it -- the yo-yo President of the U.S.A. knows NOTHING. He is a DUNCE. He does what he is TOLD to do -- says what he is TOLD to say -- poses the way he is TOLD to pose. He is a FOOL."
Well, no, Thompson's not entirely right. Like so many people of my generation (no need to be too specific here, let's just say we are old enough to groove on Hunter S. Thompson), he misses the all too obvious fact that George W. Bush does not have to be told what to do. He's no weak-minded puppet like his dad, buffeted to and fro by the winds of opinion polls. He's an ideologue, more suited to bending those opinion polls in the direction he wants them to go. But let that pass. The point is that this passage doesn't illuminate Bush for us or help us to understand him the way Thompson intuitively sized up the ruthless, ego-driven pragmatism of Nixon some 30 years ago.
Thompson is entirely correct when he calls Nixon "the CREATOR of many of the once-proud historical landmarks that these dumb bastards are savagely DESTROYING now: The Clean Air Act of 1970; Campaign Finance Reform; The Endangered Species Act; opening a Real-Politik dialogue with China; and on and on." On and on, by the way, includes the integration of America's schools and the passage of Title IX. (The asshole looks better and better to me every day.)
"The prevailing quality," writes Thompson, "of life in America -- by ANY accepted methods of measuring -- was inarguably freer and more politically OPEN under Nixon than it is today in this evil year of our Lord, 2002." Yeah, and even the Republicans were interesting back then.