It is an oft-repeated maxim that the best literary books don’t always make for pleasurable listening when they become audiobooks, and that books that sometimes seemed thin in print can be redeemed by the ear. Perhaps this is because the audiobook, as a form, is better suited to entertainment than to weightiness, to brevity than to length, to raucous event than to expansive reflection.
So it is with Hunter S. Thompson’s “Screwjack,” a brief, loud, sometimes incoherent miscellany in print, which becomes, in the audio edition, a pleasurable way to fritter away an hour.
The audiobook benefits from a strong performance by Scott Sowers, a prolific narrator notable for his ability to change his delivery, and even the quality of his voice, from book to book. In mainstream novels of sensation, such as John Grisham’s “The Confession” or Douglas Preston’s “Impact,” Sowers modulates his cadences up and down to fit the rises and falls of the action, veering from restraint to urgency. In Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel,” his delivery turns stately, to match Wolfe’s elegiac tone.
In “Screwjack,” as in his earlier audio adaptations of Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72” and “Kingdom of Fear,” Sowers rightly throws aside all the stateliness and restraint and modulation, in favor of a loose, frenetic, and often loud delivery that goes a long way toward echoing the disjointed roar of Thompson’s shtick.
All of Thompson’s published work is shtick — the stock Thompsonian characters, the druggy talk, the ellipses, the non sequiturs, the comically inflated verbs and adverbs, the fancified dialogue tags — but the best of it is hard-earned, whether by high-risk reporting of the sort he undertook during his year embedded with Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang in 1965, or by the after-the-fact writerly pyrotechnics he concocted to salvage his best-known work, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” from a failed piece of journalistic reporting on a motorcycle race and a narcotics convention.
“Screwjack” doesn’t live up to the standard set by those better books. It lacks the life-and-death stakes of “Hell’s Angels,” the freshness of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and the cultural insight of “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.” Its three parts, each of which stand alone as individual stories, concern themselves with Thompson’s first experience with mescaline in a Los Angeles hotel room (“Mescalito”), an anecdote about a suicide in a trailer park (“Death of a Poet”), and a strange exchange of sentences between a narrator one supposes to be Thompson, and his alter-ego, Raoul Duke, concerning a strange and possibly sexual relationship between Duke and a black cat named Mr. Screwjack (the title piece).
As with much of Thompson’s work, it is unclear what is nonfiction and what is invented, or whether the invented parts can be read as nonfictional because they are a report from the drugged-up brain of the narrator. And as with much of Thompson’s work, it is fairly one-note, the hip and oppositional druggy voice droning on and on. In the hands of another writer, the fact that a reviewer would speak this way of the prose would be a death knell. But there’s a reason why Thompson continues to be so popular seven years after his death and 40 years after the last of his best work. The premises of “Mescalito,” “Death of a Poet,” and “Screwjack” are paper thin, and so are the characterizations, but Thompson can do a lot with a little.
The book was originally published in a private printing of 300 fine collectors’ copies and 26 leather-bound presentation copies, and in his letter to the publisher, which opens the audiobook, Thompson offers this set of instructions:
“As for the ORDER, I think Screwjack should be last & Mescalito first — so the dramatic tension (& also the true chronological weirdness) can build like Bolero to a faster & wilder climax that will drag the reader relentlessly up a hill, & then drop him off a cliff ... That is the Desired Effect ...”
They seem to the listener to be a great discovery, a blueprint for the author’s entire career.
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