BY ANDREW MOODY
Dr Hunter S Thompson (the doctorate was ordered by airmail in the 60s) was one of the most original, wild and innovative political writers of the twentieth century. A born rebel, he never graduated from high school after a delinquency rap saw him do thirty days in a juvenile prison. He joined the air force straight after, with the secret intention of becoming a renegade novelist like Fitzgerald (whose work he would type up to get a sense of the prose rhythm), like Hemingway or Jack London or Henry Miller.
Throughout his life Thompson was drawn to the iconoclastic and alternative, which led to his first big success. After pitching an article on the Hell’s Angels, he secured a lucrative publishing deal and spent a year riding with the outlaw group. His subjective approach to HELL’S ANGELS: A STRANGE AND TERRIBLE SAGA saw it become an instant hit in 1966 selling half a million copies on the first run and remaining in print from then on.
The atmosphere was heavy with hostility, like smoke in an airless room, and for a while I assumed it was all focused on me- which most of it was when I made my initial appearance, but the focus dissolved very quickly. The sense of menace remained; it is part of the atmosphere the Hell’s Angels breathe…their world is so rife with hostility that they don’t even recognize it.
After publishing the book, some Hells Angels took offence at the way they had been portrayed and beat Thompson within an inch of his life.
Two years before his biker adventures, Hunter was in Haight Ashbury in San Francisco following the hippie scene. He knew Allen Ginsberg, Tom Wolfe, and was one of the first volunteers for Ken Kesey’s LSD experiments. Tom Wolfe’s scattershot biography of Kesey, his Merry Pranksters and the magic bus The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test was only written using fastidious recordings Thompson made of the proceedings. After Hell’s Angels, Thompson began developing a journalistic style known as ‘gonzo’, a method acting stream of consciousness journalism that was purely subjective. As he wrote later in The Great Shark Hunt he based it on “William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far truer than any kind of journalism – and the best journalists have always known this.”
His gonzo masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was first published under the pseudonym Raoul Duke, in two issues of Rolling Stone with illustrations by Ralph Steadman, the English illustrator who he had worked with on several articles for Scanlon Magazine. The book is a dark and twisted (if very funny) hallucinogenic deconstruction of the hippie/American dream, implying the bubble had burst and all that was left was the drugs and two hepcats bombing it into Vegas in a rented Chevy convertible on an orgy of destruction.
The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi coloured uppers, downers, streamers, laughers…
It depended on who you asked how realistic Fear and Loathing actually is, but Thompson later stated he knew of no drug that could get you as high as “sitting at a desk writing”.
His other great book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72 was about the Nixon/McGovern election written from the heart of the democratic team. Written in the same deeply subjective, quasi fictional fashion, nevertheless the New York Times called it “the best campaign book ever published”.
It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise.
The late 90s film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas initially repulsed audiences, but is now an undisputed cult classic, often watched ritualistically (and not suggested) with a plethora of drugs and alcohol. Thompson, who has a cameo, called the film a masterpiece and “an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield”.
He committed suicide in February 2005.
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