Gonzo Goes On
. . . And on and on and on
Three years ago, Hunter S. Thompson put a bullet in the back of his throat and through his brain stem—"He couldn't have placed it better," said the local coroner—which triggered a slow bleed of tributes, biographies and personal accounts that has yet to ebb. Since that exclamation point on a life full of wild declaration, certain neighbors, colleagues and even his widow have tried to do what Thompson did best: tell about his life. As Thompson himself might ask, haven't we had enough?
Enough, indeed. For what have we learned from all this pen-to-paper in honor of the addled writer and social critic? Not a damn thing, really. Certainly nothing—or at least nothing we're going to believe—that Thompson hadn't already told us himself. Oh, sure, there are anecdotes that didn't appear in his work and speculation on his thinking that remains, well, speculation. But if you want to know about Hunter S. Thompson, the dean of gonzo journalism, the king of fear and loathing, the prince of mayhem, the prophet of an ugly and terrible doom, forget about the come-lately books we're about to discuss here and instead read Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail '72 (especially apt this political year), read Hell's Angels and The Rum Diaries, read The Curse of Lono and The Great Shark Hunt, read the letters collected in Fear and Loathing In America and Proud Highway, even the later works, Generation of Swine and all the others that seemed so redundant—recycled gonzo, if you will—yes, read them all. And don't forget Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. They'll give you the picture, all right. But whatever you do, avoid all these after-the-fact tomes like a plague of flea-infested rats. Unless, of course, you're like me: a rabid fan of the Good Doctor who can't get enough of every drug-and-drink-driven moment of his life. Then, by all means, read these books. And marvel at a man who accelerated into all twists and turns.
"Gonzo" is often cited as an actual form of journalism—Tom Wolfe is said to be another of its practitioners—but it was totally invented and practiced by our not-so-humble subject. It's hardly journalism. Officially defined as reporting in which the reporter becomes a large part of the story, it's more concisely described as "a variant of fiction . . . works of art" by Thompson's longtime friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy. Doug Brinkley, the executor of Thompson's literary estate, explains away the "falsehoods propagated by uniformed English professors and pot-smoking fans" about the origins of the word in Jann Wenner's oral biography Gonzo. Brinkley says it comes from a tune recorded by New Orleans jazz pianist James Booker and means "to play unhinged." Thompson loved the tune and drove Boston Globe columnist Bill Cardoso crazy playing the song over and over when the two shared a room while covering the 1968 presidential primary in New Hampshire. Cardoso later complemented Thompson's now-famous piece on the Kentucky Derby as "pure gonzo journalism!" Thompson quickly adopted the term as his own, and gonzo became the trademark not only of indulged storytelling, but also a lifestyle.
Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson is a narrative collection of memories from more than 100 of Thompson's friends, lovers and associates. Assembled by Rolling Stone founder/publisher Wenner and editor Corey Seymour, it's crowded with celebrities. Jack Nicholson, Angelica Huston, Norman Mailer, Jimmy Buffett and Sean Penn all make contributions; the introduction is written by Johnny Depp. It focuses on Thompson's relationship to the long-in-the-tooth, once-counterculture Rolling Stone. Thompson's deadline and expense-account battles with Wenner are well-known, and Thompson claimed a falling out with Wenner, whom he accused of squirreling away thousands of first-edition copies of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas for later, more profitable sales. But Wenner glosses over all that here as if it were a joke. It may have been. Thompson had accused the publishers of Hell's Angels of the same thing.
Thompson's longtime illustrator Ralph Steadman—who declared, "It's about time" when he learned of Thompson's suicide—calls his tribute The Joke's Over. Despite the title, there are still plenty of laughs: Thompson giving Steadman some psilocybin for sea sickness during their coverage of the America's Cup (surprisingly, the illustrator's only experience with hallucinogens), Thompson's reaction upon first meeting Steadman ("Ye Gods, Ralph! A matted-haired geek with string-warts! They told me you were weird, but not that weird"). Thompson urged Steadman not to write—"You'll bring shame on your family," he counseled. Steadman should have listened.
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Steadman's illustrations are splattered through Anita Thompson's The Gonzo Way. As Thompson's widow, you would guess Mrs. Thompson (nee Bejmuk) would have fresh insight. We almost threw away the thin little text when we read, "If you are one of those who loved the Hunter S. Thompson Show for its decadence, its crazy debauchery on every level, mixed with Wild Turkey, Dunhills, and multitudes of uppers and downers and screamers and laughers . . . this book is not for you." Well, of course we loved him for those very things—and his ability to function, albeit crazily. Bejmuk's attempt to re-create Thompson as some sort of Zen master, embodied by seven lessons of gonzo (Lesson No. 2: "It's wrong when it stops being fun"), somehow seems false despite the truth of these maxims. Rumors that Thompson and his wife were at odds just before his suicide, as confirmed by son Juan Thompson in Wenner's Gonzo, make this book something of a guilty pleasure.
The most disturbing of these texts is the most recent. Friends Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis (Braudis is the look-the-other way sheriff of Thompson's Colorado county) spend a lot of time telling us insider stories in The Kitchen Readings. Fair enough, but they seem to gloat on their insider status, and the subtitle claim of "Untold Stories" is a lie. Some of this stuff's been told before. Maybe our criticism springs from jealousy at not being an insider ourselves. Still the stories, even if a number of them are secondhand, are entertaining. We especially like the ones about Thompson's pea fowls. And there's a good accounting of the blasting of Thompson ashes over his beloved Woody Creek from a 150-foot-tall cannon topped with the gonzo fist. Read it and weep.
Thompson was a pack rat all the way back to his high-school days, and we gonzo nuts are glad he saved every letter, photo and rough draft. Gonzo, which bears his name as author, is an oversized scrapbook of photos and documents that highlight various periods of Thompson's life. There's little to read here—an occasional quote in large type breaks up the pages of photo collage and another introduction by Depp—but it's a joy to see this handsome youth from Kentucky become the balding and ribald pessimist we all love. This book will make a great coffee-table coaster for those sweating tumblers of Wild Turkey. As Hunter said, a phrase often repeated in all these books, "Buy the ticket, take the ride." Indeed.
Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, an oral biography by Jann S. Wenner & Corey Seymour; Little Brown. Hardcover, 467 pages, $28.99; The Joke's Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson and Me by Ralph Steadman; Harvest Books. Paperback, 416 pages, $15; The Gonzo Way by Anita Thompson; Fulcrum Press. Hardcover, 112 pages, $14.95; The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson by Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis; Harper Perennial. Paperback, 274 pages, $13.95; Gonzo by Hunter S. Thompson; AMMO Books. Hardcover, 289 pages, $39.95.