Showing posts with label Hunter Thompson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hunter Thompson. Show all posts

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 review by Matt Taibbi. - Slate Magazine

Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 review by Matt Taibbi. - Slate Magazine:

In celebration of the  40th Anniversary edition of Hunter Thompson's gonzo masterpiece of political writing "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail", Slate writer Matt Taibbi writes an extensive essay on  why  HST still matters in our  current climate of  dread and drudgery.It is a nice commemoration, but I'm not persuaded that we could have learned anything more than      we already have from the late writer; what newer readers would learn is what we did, after time, that HST  could be wildly entertaining and then dependably repetitive in his subjects, his insults, his tone.  Truthfully, Thompson's reputation as a writer is based on a very small body of quality  work. I am willing to cede that Hunter Thompson succeeded , momentarily, at being a Great Writer for a couple of books, but the bitter truth was that while he was long on rage , he was short on other elements that keep a writer interesting over a career. Those qualities are insight, nuance, a curiosity about people and their circumstances beyond what mere appearances. 

Mere appearence, though, sufficed too often for Thompson, as his conceit, dove-tailing tellingly with his appetite for high powered stimulants, was that he could walk into the room full of characters and size the situation quickly. His concern was pacing over all, the attempt to simulate the down hill careen of a waiter carrying too many hot dishes from the kitchen. For all the energy and paranoid genius Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and his Campaign Trail book contained, it amounted to the best expression of the limited set of riffs Thompson. 

He was not especially engrossing as a political thinker--we read him for his vitriol. His attraction for invective , I imagine, was because it was easy and that it was a convenient means to get to the bottom of one typewritten page after another; the rhythm of the constructed persona of being the most wasted man alive bravely inveighing against the stupidities and inequities and the  utter  mendacity of the world in which he finds himself would go into hyperdrive. 

For some this suggested automatic writing, the idea that HST  was channeling some Truth hidden behind the barriers of bullshit and pretense, a voice greater than his own. Perhaps, but for me it was the writing of someone who was working what became a tired set of rhetorical ploys. Thompson plainly never had the chance to transcend his moment of transcendent genius, as had, say, Norman Mailer, himself an egotist with a certainity that only he could get to the disguised truth of things. Mailer settled in for the long haul, abandoned much of his writerly eccentricity and produced a series of brilliant books of fiction and nonfiction in his late career; there are other things to discuss about Mailer than his antics.

There are many who would like to consider Thompson our generations H.L.Mencken, but I would say the departed Hunter comes up short: even a writer as caustic as Mencken would , often enough, vary his tone and write about matters that didn't need to be vilified, crucified or witlessly mocked. Thompson never had the chance to try anything truly different.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hunter Thompson, again

I was looking for something to watch on TV while avoiding chores when I stumbled upon HBO on Demand. I browsed through the available movies, most of which I had either ignored in the theaters because they seemed bloated and bland in the previews, or seen already and had no desire to watch again. The typical cable problem: too many channels and nothing interesting. I decided to check out a few more movies and found one that I had missed, Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Johnny Depp as the late Hunter Thompson and Benicio Del Toro as his sidekick, the drug-crazed Dr. Gonzo. "Crazed" is the right word for the film; Thompson's book of the same name is a hilarious masterpiece of drug-induced paranoia, where his loud and frantic prose worked brilliantly. One could feel the fear and intensity and laugh at the madness.

Gilliam, however, is a heavy-handed director and tries to recreate the frenzy of Thompson's prose with a restless, jittery, and argumentative visual style, words that also describe Depp's portrayal of Thompson. The film failed in its attempt to revive an old sensation, and so did Thompson's body of work, many years of declining returns on his old reputation. Sometimes I'll pick up a book I had read and enjoyed years ago just to see if the writer's prose still has the same effect on me after my taste and expectations have changed, that is to say refined by experience, whether good, bad or neutral. Some writers still have that knockout punch in their old books--Mailer in An American Dream and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Hemingway with In Our Time , among many others--and some heroes have aged poorly over time, like Lester Bangs, Charles Bukowski. No surprise; in my mid-fifties, I'm drawn to the deeper lyricism in the words that fill a page, the tone that goes beyond the moment of excitement and that continues to resonate as an example of writing that nails its moment perfectly.

A recent re-read of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson was this kind of book, from its infamous road trip opening to its paranoid adventures at a Las Vegas Narcotics officers convention; for all his death wish and self-centered recklessness--a revolutionary without a plan--Thompson wrote the final word that needed to be written on living on the edge. One wondered, even when young first encountering Thompson and his extreme style, whether he would fall off that edge or if someone would push him. It can't be that surprising that Hunter Thompson ended it the way he did; the only question to ask is why it didn't happen sooner. He was a case of Hemingwayism gone wild on crack cocaine, that one's challenges were one's character, and that the unwritten essence of a personal code was formed by how well one overcame one crisis after another.

It was always about struggle with Thompson, the struggle to meet deadlines before his drugs took effect, the clock ticking before a deadline would come again and he had nothing but a paragraph of drugged nonsense; like Kerouac, who he greatly admired, he came to document less the event he had been assigned than his own chronicles of using his body as a testing ground for new and improved abuses. You might say that he treated his mind as like a car he'd constantly try to rev up, lift up, juice up in hopes of getting the engine and suspension to take a sharp turn faster, meaner, louder, with the thought of eventual breakdown for the moment blocked out by the sheer mania and thrill that such speeds and close calls give you. But his mind fried; he wrote less; he mumbled more in public speeches and talks; he broke bones; his manner was a textbook example of the word "fried". Hells Angels It was as if the synapses that had fired and given **the world** Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had fused **the ends** of his nerve endings and made it impossible to change style, outlook or interest. Other writers of similar aesthetic--Mailer, Wolfe--found new voices, bigger subjects, subtler ways to put forth their arguments with existence. Thompson was stuck in time, trying to sustain himself on sparking fits of rage and guile, coming up with little that was new, as it must be for an artist to keep a pulse worth beating. The real bummer is that he lived all these years knowing that he didn't have another good book in him. This might have been his biggest pain to endure, and it might have been the one he meant to stop once and for all. I agree that Thompson is an easy target, but then again he rarely missed a chance to make himself one. The curse of being a celebrity writer is that one risks becoming a brand name and finding themself facing audience expectation more than their muse. Thompson became Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Journalist , and became something of a clown making faces for a paying crowd. The pity of it all is that he had great talent when he put it to work, the result being a small but strong core of books from his body of work: Hells Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. But the act got old and the body couldn't keep up the paces anymore, and his writing became erratic, cruel, angry; he became a writer eternally dissatisfied without recourse to wit or irony. There was something sadly drastic about Better than Sex, a strange assemblage full of loud declarations and not much coherence; Thompson in his prime could emerge from his comic paranoia and invective and land on an illuminating point. This was all hollow gesturing. The problem, I suppose, was that Thompson never took the time to change his act, his style, to consider a project that would reshape his notion of what constitutes writing. Mailer dropped the third person persona and wrote The Executioner's Song, a fugue-paced saga made of terse sentences, and went on to a later career that still provoked controversy. Tom Wolfe, in turn, became a novelist, a good thing for him, as they mitigate his later essays, a string of missives from a sourpuss. In both cases, to varying degrees, the changes of stylistic venue kept both writers fresh in their old age. Thompson didn't avail himself of the chance.
I don't dismiss him as a drunk and a drug addict; I simply won't discount those things that ruined his talent. We do need to consider him seriously as a representative author of his time, but this needs to be done with it in mind that his biography is a cautionary tale for those who read him, like him, and decide they want to write crazy paragraphs like he did. One would need to emphasize the distinction between trying to write like Hunter Thompson and trying to be Hunter Thompson.