Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Too Rare to Die, Too Weird to Live.

“We were two miles outside of Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” Thus begins the first line of the book which serves as the handshake, for most, with Hunter S Thompson, the masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972). It is 40 years after that book was written and 6 years after he decided to call it a day with a bullet to the head. The suicide in 2005 was inevitable.  Thompson had made no secret of his decision to commit suicide for years before he actually did.  The reasons were many and varied, but the main reasons were due to his failing health, his idealisation of youth and his resolute refusal to grow old gracefully. The funeral had been planned years before and Thompson’s old friend Johnny Depp was responsible for the funding of the ceremony – the good doctor’s remains were fired out of a cannon at his compound in Colorado.

The stereotypical image of Hunter S. Thompson is not actually one of Thompson himself; most think of his alter ego, the drug crazed, babbling lunatic Raoul Duke. This is the persona in which Thompson was able to write such insane tales of unbelievable excess such as the aforementioned Fear and Loathing. But Thompson himself was less of a caricature, and more of a thoughtful, darkly angry crusader against all that he saw was wrong with America. His targets included the decadence of the 70’s, pro football, and his arch nemesis Richard Milhous Nixon.  Nixon personified everything that Thompson thought had gone awry with the United States, for he was the gutless war-monger who bombed Indochina into the stone-age for nothing more than political capital and when the students at Kent State came out in protest Thompson connived to have them slain by the National Guard. Years before Woodward and Bernstein blow open the Watergate scandal, Thompson was already decrying Nixon as a crook, a blowhard and the bastard who would plunge America into a decadent, depraved parody of every truth and principle on which it was founded, as indeed he did.

But it is for Gonzo that Thompson is so fondly remembered. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Gonzo journalism, here’s a quick primer to save you the trouble of checking Wikipedia. Gonzo journalism is the antithesis of “fly on the wall” journalism, being more “fly in the ointment” in its style. It approaches any given subject material from a subjective viewpoint, exacerbating details to a ridiculous proportion in an attempt to give a more sympathetic view of the material in question. It was invented and pioneered by Thompson in his article The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved, in which he described his own experience of the Derby rather than in the traditional sports-writer style – he covered the crowd and not the derby. He did this purely because of a looming deadline and he had no time to write up his notes. The resulting article is by turns grotesque, informative and utterly hilarious, and gives a far more accurate portrayal of Kentucky horseracing than would have otherwise been shown by a traditional writer. Gonzo grew from there, and is now aped by innumerable writers across the world (one of these writers being a particularly persistent perpetrator of this style). 

The aforementioned Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is undoubtedly his most famous work,  a monolith of excess and depravity seared across America's most grotesque altar to consumption and vice. It is the starting point for most into the world of Hunter S. Thompson, and is also his funeral eulogy for the spirit of the 60's. The nihilistic search for a thrill that Thompson (masquerading as Raoul Duke) and his unnamed Samoan attorney (a comic exaggeration of Thompson's real life friend and confidant Oscar Acosta) undertake in Nevada is born out of a sadness that the hippy spirit of the decade before did not bring about universal peace and love, but instead opened up America to the "grim meathook realities" of what absolute freedom really meant. The famously Herculean consumption of narcotics undertaken in the book is also inspired by the death of the  60's, a sly comment on how the spiritualistic nature of drugs as preached by Timothy Leary descended into the hedonistic need for a chemical buzz that fuelled the 70's, and as it remains to this day. The book came as a howled requiem for the Beat Movement, the generosity and revolutionary zeal of writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg replaced with a scowling, dark commentary on how the world failed to live up to the promise of the Hippy Dream, and wistfully looking back on how pathetic and futile the whole movement had been.

We must remember him as a man with one face looking back at John F Kennedy, the closest a politician could get to an everyman, and looking towards George McGovern with his other face as he asks for three margaritas and six beers for lunch. There are few ways to summarise the man's viewpoint without giving way to his own words, as he was more eloquent than we can ever be: "There are times, however, and this is one of them, when even being right feels wrong. What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death? If making love might be fatal and if a cool spring breeze on any summer afternoon can turn a crystal blue lake into a puddle of black poison right in front of your eyes, there is not much left except TV and relentless masturbation. It's a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die."

Written by JT White and Josh Ferguson, December 6th 2011, for the Heythrop student newspaper the Lion originally.

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