Considering his history, it was gutsy of ESPN to give Dr. Hunter S. Thompson a semi-regular online column back in 2000, and it's been even gutsier for them to keep it. One can't imagine all NASCAR dads or Dallas Cowboys fans pleased to find sports essays that cite our sitting president as a "greed-crazed yo-yo who slit the throat of the U.S. economy in the name of Tax Cuts (and feverish warmongering gone wrong)." But that's what they read, along with point spreads and Super Bowl predictions. Sports, along with the guns, swearing and Wild Turkey, are the good doctor's catalyst. But he always sees the larger picture.
Thompson's world view has often been that of sportswriter, whether on a repeated junket to the Honolulu Marathon or in a battle with screaming bats en route to the Mint 500, the desert race that spawned Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As if to prove the point, Hey Rube, the new collection of his ESPN columns, reproduces an Aug. 23, 1957, directive from a colonel at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida, citing the gonzo airman for "outstanding sports writing" but forbidding him to report again because of his "rebel and superior attitude" and his "critical editorializing" on subjects not related to sports.
The book, carrying the same main name as his ESPN Page 2 column, also does some critical editorializing as it follows three-and-a-half seasons of NFL odds and various other gaming. The larger picture is the deteriorating political situation since 2000, "this blizzard of shame" as Thompson calls it, and the events of his own life. Even as he compares America's collapse to Rome's, he doesn't think football is a circus. But he doesn't believe it's war either, and he accuses Bush of "constantly jabbering about how his jackass war on the nation of Islam is joined at the hip with the nature of football."
"I have tried them both for long periods of time," Thompson writes in a 2003 essay, "and I frankly see no basic similarity at all, beyond the powerful desire to hurt people." Instead, he says, football is more like politics, with a smell that's "Dank & Nasty" and an increasingly shrinking talent pool.
There's no pre-Sept. 11 innocence in the essays dated before that tragic day. The same sense of paranoia and anger that's always made Thompson hilarious reading is well-evident. In an essay written shortly after the 2000 election, he laments, "It's the beginning of the end of our world as we knew it" and urges us to "Get familiar with Cannibalism." In a column dated Dec. 4, 2000, the perpetually doom-struck Thompson predicts "crazed Muslim terrorists might put Nerve Gas or Anthrax in your drinking water." You have to wonder: What did the doctor know, and when did he know it?
The columns immediately following Sept. 11 are filled with bloody rubble, uncovered point spreads and pigskinning. He fears the terrorists are seizing control of the NFL. While the focus is on the new commander in chief, Al Gore is not spared. Thompson condemns him as "the Hapless, worm-eaten Dunce who fumbled the White House away to a gang of sleazy Oilmongers from Texas." He is nicer to Bill Clinton, suggesting the ex-president spent Super Bowl 2002 in Beverly Hills with a couple of whores from Oxnard.
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The more to fear and loathe, the better Thompson's prose. Though he occasionally misses ("all war and no football make Jack a dull boy"), Hey Rube contains some of Thompson's most crazed writing in a decade. Readers familiar with the good doctor will find an even more intense sense of exaggeration despite the fact drugs hardly come into play, overlooking a drink or two, some jimson weed, the mention of cocaine and a strange home brew from Ethiopia.
To say Thompson is irreverent is like calling the Grand Canyon a ditch. He's not afraid to speak things that might get others brought up on charges: "Corruption is a Way of Life in Utah. . . . Mormons have been beating and cheating each other since the arrival of Brigham Young." At one point, he admits a soft spot for Ronald Reagan because Reagan was also once a sportswriter and his wife "gave the best head in Hollywood."
Near the end of this collection (the last column is dated Oct. 13, 2003), Thompson literally loses his spine—or part of it—to surgery and (horrors!) gets married. The two events seem to soften his perspective even as he urges us to slap down the current administration. His requiem for George Plimpton might well be considered touching. Has Thompson lost his edge? Don't bet on it. As he assures us regarding his gambling methods, "I know exactly what I'm doing."
Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness, Modern History from the Sports Desk by Hunter S. Thompson; Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 272 Pages, $23.