Thursday, August 31, 2006

Craziness, good and bad: Hunter S. Thompson

I’ve just finished reading, back-to-back, Hunter S. Thompson’s two classic works, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. It must be about 15 years since I last read them. I kept up with a few of his later articles in Rolling Stone and other places, but at some point I sort of lost track of him. That changed last year, but that was, unfortunately, for the worst of all possible reasons.

I’m pleased, though, to find that I enjoyed these books as much – and I think even more – than I did when I first read them. Of course, when I discovered them as a teenager in the mid 1980s, they struck me in a rather different way than they do now. Then, their absurd, druggy antics sparked too much hysterical laughter (as well as a perhaps misguided admiration) to really appreciate either the incredible darkness which haunts these works or the abiding political rage which – along with a constant supply of mescaline – fuelled Thompson’s writing. There is a deadly seriousness and desperation in these books which I’m not sure is always recognised today, and it’s far too easy to write Thompson off as some kind of bizarre counterculture clown. (Not that the books aren’t still hilarious after all these years. They are.)

The grimness is particularly distilled in the second book. His in-depth reporting (and reporting from the depths) of American politics in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 left me a bit cold the first time through. Having read Thompson's tripped-out, semi-autobiographical Las Vegas book first, I think I expected more of the same but with a political chaser. However, what I found was a more serious book altogether. I enjoyed parts of it then, but I didn't really get it. I suppose you have to have two decades of political disillusionment and frustration behind you before this insightful reporting from the 1972 election can really say anything meaningful to you. I was partly inspired to re-read it because of all the references to George McGovern which have been circulating in analysis of what’s happening to the Democratic Party since Ned Lamont’s victory over Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. The comparison is usually meant to be unflattering.

It is a prophecy of doomed idealism.

George McGovern led a dynamic, largely grassroots campaign in the Democratic primary, and his popularity among the party’s more liberal wing was propelled by his consistent stance against the Vietnam War. His campaign, however, was also aimed at the Democratic establishment, the ‘hacks’ (in Thompson's words) and fixers who kept the party from representing any kind of real alternative. Thompson despised the Republicans, and Richard Nixon was his favourite bête noire, representing ‘that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise’.

However, by necessity, much of the book focuses on the Democratic primary (Nixon was the incumbent), and it sometimes appears that Thompson’s most acidic venom was saved for the Democrats:

That same gang of corrupt and genocidal bastards who not only burned me for six white sharkskin suits eight years ago in South Dakota and chased me through the streets of Chicago with clubs & tear gas in August of ’68, but also forced me to choose for five years between going to prison or chipping in 20 percent of my income to pay for napalm bombs to be dropped on people who never threatened me with anything; and who put my friends in jail for refusing to fight an undeclared war in Asia that even Mayor Daley is now opposed to…
(That bit about the sharkskin suits is classic Thompson, and refers to a story which is too long to go into here...)

For all Thompson’s cynicism, though, McGovern’s surprising primary victory gave him hope that there was an alternative, the potential for not only driving Nixon from the White House but also in turning America in a fundamentally different direction. These heightened expectations made the subsequent disaster of the general election (McGovern was wiped out, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia) all the more bitter. Facing polls which – accurately – showed a Nixon landslide before the election, Thompson’s anger is blunt but eloquent:

This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.
It is impossible, though, to classify Thompson as simply a liberal America-hater, as conservatives so love to do whenever someone has the temerity to criticise US society or policy. As absurd as it might at first sound, Thompson was a patriot, and his political instincts were rooted in a discontented libertarian tradition and – admittedly strange – idealism which is out and out American. His anger was stoked by the conviction that he was being forced to watch as the violent and nasty side of his nation got the upper hand. He foresaw, with the deepest anxiety, the death of the American Dream.

The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about ‘new politics’ and ‘honesty in government’ is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.
I, for one, find these words still resonate. It should, moreover, be obvious to all but the most blinkered right-wing hacks (who associate free-thinking critics with traitors) that there is a vast difference between ‘tearing down’ one’s country, and trying to drag it upwards toward a better place.

One might say that in Thompson’s case this would also have been a far stranger place. Considering his own political campaigns in Colorado (under the ‘Freak Power’ banner), that’s undoubtedly true. Nonetheless, what I think comes out clearly in these books is the notion that while the resort to consciousness-altering drugs might led to some very heavy wierdness, that paled in comparison to the bizarre absurdity of the reality Thompson confronted. ‘Bad craziness’ was the way his alter ego Raoul Duke put it frequently in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

His libertarian opinions, his pro-drug stance and his enthusiasm for firearms meant that Thompson was, however, a figure who fit awkwardly on the liberal-left, if, in fact, he fit precisely there at all. (Not that I think this definitional problem would have bothered him much. Nor, I think, should it.) I haven’t read most of his later work (which I now plan to get to at some point), but he made his opinion of the current occupant of the White House clear enough.

If Nixon were running for president today, he would be seen as a "liberal" candidate, and he would probably win. He was a crook and a bungler, but what the hell? Nixon was a barrel of laughs compared to this gang of thugs from the Halliburton petroleum organization who are running the White House today -- and who will be running it this time next year, if we (the once-proud, once-loved and widely respected "American people") don't rise up like wounded warriors and whack those lying petroleum pimps out of the White House on November 2nd.
If his own reporting is to believed, Thompson had an almost unerring ability to call political races in 1972; sadly, he was somewhat off his stride in 2004, when he predicted a Kerry victory.

But Thompson’s pithy, lively and amphetamine writing style appealed to me from the beginning. It still does, but my recent re-reading has helped me recognise other qualities as well. One was a keen observational eye for all variety of squalid compromise and dishonest hucksterism. Another was his willingness to castigate not only his obvious political enemies, but also those who were ostensibly ‘on his side’. For example, although decidedly opposed to the Vietnam War, he despaired of some parts of the anti-war movement, as was apparent at the Republican convention in Miami:

With the lone exception of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the demonstrators in Miami were a useless mob of ignorant, chicken-shit ego-junkies whose only accomplishment was to embarrass the whole tradition of public protest … If the Rolling Stones came to Miami for a free concert, these assholes would build their own fence around the bandstand – just so they could have something to tear down and then 'crash the gates'.
The most important thing I’ve recognised, though, which I missed on all my other readings, was something that might sound surprising. If you read carefully and look past the bile and rage, there is a tremendously sensitive core to this writing. That, I think, was the most unexpected thing I could hear emerging from the crazy vortex of Thompson’s writing: an extremely humane voice in deeply dangerous times. (William F. Buckley Jr.'s dismissive claim that Thompson subsumed everything to mere 'vitriol' says a great deal about Buckley's ability to read and nothing about Thompson's to write.)

I saw Thompson once during a public speaking tour in 1989, in the grimy confines of one of my favourite haunts in those days, the Cabaret Metro in Chicago. (‘You never know exactly what kind of terrible shit is going to come down on you in that town,’ he wrote, ‘but you can always count on something. Every time I go to Chicago I come away with scars.’ I’m sorry Hunter, I really am.) It was a difficult evening: he showed up two hours late and then spent about 90 minutes speaking furiously and quickly, and often incomprehensibly, meanwhile making serious headway into a bottle of Chivas Regal. It was a strange – but unforgettable – evening.

He took his own life last year. This saddened me when I heard it. And it saddens me even more now that I’ve spent some more time with his work. It might seem to some that his perspective and approach was out of date. There certainly is something to the question of whether the early twenty-first century has much room for gonzo journalism of this variety. If anything, I think the acceptable margins for this kind of raucous individuality have become even more narrow since the early 70s. Perhaps Dr. Thompson did belong to another era.

Which is unfortunate, as there’s still plenty of bad craziness around.


Chris Williams said...

If there is gonzo hope, it lies in Mark Ames. Forex:

Richard Morgan said...

I haven't read any of Thompson works, but I started to read your blog today. I like it. That is saying alot. Since I'm in the military and voted for Bush. I'm taking a International Relations class and I stumbled on your blog. I'll keep reading.

JCWood said...

Chris: Thanks for the link, very enjoyable. Though not quite up to the HST standard.

RJMorgan: Welcome to my blog and thanks for the praise, which, indeed, is all the more meaningful for coming out of an unexpected quarter. If you're stationed anywhere dangerous, please be careful.