Saturday, 15 October 2011

A voyage into Gonzo.

"I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger: A man on the move, and just sick enough to be totally confident." - Hunter S Thompson

The Rum Diary is not a piece of Gonzo journalism, for it was written in the late 50s when Hunter S Thompson was in his early 20s. But what is Gonzo? The particular brand which Dr Thompson dabbled in was as strenuously subjective and participatory as it is wild, this is where flat-out fantasy meets accurate reportage. The good Doctor filtered reality through a freakish mania sustained or possibly endured with the help of copious amounts of (both legal and illegal) substances. For Gonzo the claims of 'objectivity' which permeate American journalism are false and absurd, the blind-spots of which provide room for people such as Richard Nixon to slither into public office. Instead Gonzo wallows in its own subjectivity, it oozes provocative opinion as well as hard fact and comment meshed together with just the kind of sordid thoughts that will shock the squares. For Thompson journalism is nothing more than "a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage."

Going by the trailer of the film adaptation it would seem that the director Bruce Robinson (another seasoned drinker) had sought to extrapolate the Gonzo style throughout the story from the early hints of Gonzo lurking in the work. Undeniably there are the early signs of Gonzo in the piece, the drunken adventures of Paul Kemp in Puerto Rico carry the same filthy and sinister tones to them as in Thompson's later works. The language is simple, as well as wild and precise on the important details. Just as in The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved the reader is left waiting for the major event which never actually comes. Instead the almost masturbatory run-up to the event becomes the central focus of the piece. The derby is never covered in the sports article Thompson wrote. The Gonzo style of the narrative is complimented with the ultra-surreal and grotesque illustrations of English artist Ralph Steadman, who was out of his face on psilocybin at the time. The assignment was botched and Thompson saw it as a brutal failure, until he received wave-after-wave of positive feedback.

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the reader only sees the beginning of the motorcycle race that Thompson was sent to cover in Nevada. Instead the depraved duo of Hunter S Thompson and Oscar Acosta became Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo, the mad trip through Las Vegas which followed was likened to a "savage journey to the heart of the American dream". The American Dream does not seem to be covered in any way other than some abstract analogy between all-American ideas and the cultural revolution of the 60s which had died by the early 70s. Perhaps it is the journey itself which falls short of finding the Dream. In The Rum Diary there is no sidekick for Paul Kemp, at least not to rival Oscar Acosta and Ralph Steadman. The role of the foreign compatriot in these instances is not to provide a domesticated semi-by-standing assistant to the character arc of a white man, rather Acosta became a full participant in the story just as Thompson did. Oscar Acosta was a radical lawyer who went on the road with Hunter S Thompson to Las Vegas where their antics were immortalised in Fear and Loathing.

The hints of a politically conscious youth can also be found in The Rum Diary, there are references to the "rise of communism", discouraging events in Cuba and the brutality of capitalism. The McCarthyite atmosphere of the day is captured as the newspaper is owned by a man named Lotterman, an ex-communist who attacks anything remotely left-ish to prove himself as a reformed character. Power is consistently portrayed as sleazy, amoral and self-interested. The politics of Thompson were one part ultra-leftist sentiment, one part Democrat and three parts Freak Power. As a man of contradictions Thompson was at once facing the liberal establishment and the radical strand of American populism. So he can support JFK and Jimmy Carter at the same time as he launches into vociferous attacks on Richard Nixon. In his dedication to George McGovern he set out to destroy all Democratic opposition with his typewriter, before moving on to do the same to the Republican candidates. In the end it was all or nothing for the good Doctor, he gave up the ghost before he got to see the first African-American walk into the White House as President. In the end it was all fear and loathing...

"The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but to those who see it coming and jump aside." - Hunter S Thompson

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