Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Gonzo

I don't usually write negative reviews of books: Life is too short, and I'd rather write about something I liked.

But on some occasions the work has bothered me so much I feel compelled to mention it. Gonzo, an "oral biography" of Hunter S. Thompson by Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour is one of those books.

Long-time readers of fhb know that I have mixed feelings about HST. I kind of outgrew the whole gonzo thing by the time I reached my 30s. Stories about gobbling vast quantities of drugs, drinking oceans of booze, and terrifying a straight populace tend to lose charm as we get older... or even - dare I say it - grow up. Engaging drunks are still drunks in the cold light of morning, intriguing outlaw druggies are still druggies, and stories about flooding hotel rooms or destroying restaurants aren't very funny to those people who have to clean up the mess. And that's one of the things you learn if you're unfortunate enough to be in the circle of an alcoholic or druggie. Somebody else is always expected to clean up the mess.

Thompson wrote one excellent book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and two pretty-good books, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail `72 and Hell's Angels, and that was about that. By the `80s, his career was pretty much over from a writing perspective, although he'd recycle old stuff, flail together bits and pieces of stuff that didn't quite work, and market every scrap of paper he could find for the next 20-odd years. By that time he was living mostly on the outsize gonzo legend he had created, and, as far as you can tell from Gonzo, was one miserable man who made the lives of family, friends and acquaintances a living hell.

It's one of the strange things about Gonzo, that few of the people interviewed have much good to say about HST, and, even when they do, tend to qualify it... "Hunter could be a sweet man, when he wasn't throwing a temper tantrum or breaking light bulbs over a restaurant table..."

One of the interviewees, Ed Bradley, I think, who had a peculiar fondness for Thompson, although one can't discern why, notes that being someone who liked hanging with HST was somewhat akin to being a cult member. It's an appropriate analogy. From the outside you can't imagine what the attraction could have been, at least not from the stories told in Gonzo.

Those stories just get sadder and sadder as the book heads for the inevitable conclusion. Thompson attempts to cover the Ali/Foreman match in Zaire and finds he's outclassed by a slew of much more heavyweight boxing writers, including Norman Mailer. An unwilling Thompson tries to do the Hemingway thing and cover the fall of Saigon, and facing the real gonzo craziness of Vietnam runs, at first opportunity, to the safety of Manila - spending the rest of his life spouting the lie that Jann Wenner had canceled his life insurance.

Wifes are beaten, children are ignored. Assistants are treated like slaves. Hotel rooms are trashed. Innocent people are subjected to venomous invective only because they had the misfortune to cross Thompson's path. By the end, we have an image of HST on the floor in front of his refrigerator, throwing a temper tantrum like a two-year-old because he's dropped a jar and wants someone to come and pick it up for him.

Seriously.

I wrote back in 2005, "...One of the ironic things about Thompson's early books, better recognized when they were first published, and increasingly lost as the gonzo message was celebrated by later generations, was the thread of despair that ran through them..."

Almost all of Gonzo reflects that despair. Whether one good book was worth it, I can't answer.

1 comment:

Ignatious said...

i can't disagree with a single word you said about the man. i always wonder how someone who was a self-confessed monster had so many fine loyal friends.

but one note: i enjoyed generation of swine a bunch.