Thursday, February 24, 2005

Every Time a Famous Writer Dies, An Untenured Assistant Professor Gets His Wings

By which I mean now the son of a bitch can't talk back, the possibility of that back talk probably having caused some academics to back off their theory du jour -- though the ones with balls (guy balls; girl balls; balls is balls) would just tell the poor old sod: "You wrote it. Your job is over. Get out of my way."

So Hunter Thompson is dead, and what better time for me to pull out my lovingly battered copy of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and mine the text. It's the words themselves that matter, not the soggy memory of what might have been said and what you wished was said.

A little weird, though, to examine one's notes, to see what happened way back then at the first moment of collision with the text. My first note on the inside of the front cover:

"Tone reminds me somewhat of 'Ginger Man.' (?)"

(?) indeed! I have not thought about J.P. Donleavy's "The Ginger Man" in decades. Similarity in tone? There is a kind of extravagance in both ....



However, a certain sympathy resonates between HST and JP, more circumstantial than integral. I mean I can't be the only reader -- almost certainly male, I concede -- whose number one choice in high school and early college (English major all the way) was Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"; whose number one choice in graduate school was "The Ginger Man"; and whose number one choice during those first years of teaching college English -- an early Sixties teenager suddenly teaching early Seventies teenagers -- was "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." In other words, I was a creature of the changing times when it came to books about alienation and resistance to the larger culture, those books in which you identified with the protagonist, you were the protagonist.

You protest: I thought you said we were going into the text, not down into the foul rag and bone shop of your past conformities?

Yes yes but but thinking about "The Ginger Man" -- which was pretty hot and sexy for its day -- leads me to a point of interest in F&L. It is not hot and sexy. (Huh? Why should it be? - Eds.) Whatever sexual adventures Thompson had while doing, or approximating, the events in the book are excluded. We could talk long time about this void. Maybe he was practicing abstinence! Maybe he was afraid of his wife! Maybe he had a fit of journalistic integrity! (At this point, I pick door number two with great confidence.)

Or maybe whether or not Thompson was sexually active in Las Vegas during the time he experienced -- or imagined or fever-dreamed -- the experiences that make up the book, maybe such adventures did not fit in his grand scheme. Could be a question of aesthetics, not events. And one must not forget that, as he says so often, he is "a doctor of journalism."

Which, of course, he wasn't.

Back to the sex, which in the period hymn comes not alphabetically but before the drugs and before the rock and roll and therefore attention must be paid. First some context: F&L is a male book, fuelled as much by testosterone as illegal substances, and when I teach it -- usually to a class in which women outnumber men by 2 or 3 to 1 -- I press the class to talk about the differences in response to the book depending on gender, or sexual preference for that matter. The degree to which women think F&L is an exercise in male privilege, i.e., the right to exist in a state of intoxication without fear or censure, is a question that interests me. Hateful things are needful things, when it comes to class discussion.

And there is a moment when sexual issues arise. This is the scene I push before the class to promote dialogue. "My attorney" has picked up an underage Jesus Freak female runaway who has never had a drink and to whom he has given a powerful drug. Thompson has not counted on finding his attorney "locked into some kind of preternatural courtship."

He suggests:

"It'll probably work out. We can keep her loaded and peddle her ass at the drug convention. These cops will go fifty bucks a head to beat her into submission and then gang fuck her. We can set her up in one of these back street motels, hang pictures of Jesus all over the room, then turn these pigs loose on her... Hell she's strong; she'll hold her own."


"Jesus Christ," he muttered. "I knew you were sick but I never expected to hear you actually say that kind of stuff. "


"I figure she can do four at a time," I said. "Christ, if we keep her full of acid, that's more than two grand a day, maybe three."

"You filthy bastard.!" he sputtered. "I should cave your fucking head in."

And that, I assume is the point. Thompson -- okay; Duke -- through hyperbole has begun to persuade his attorney to part kindly with Lucy rather than.... rather than whatever. Perhaps, this is actually a moral moment. But this is strong stuff, brutal and misogynistic if taken on the face of it. I think I know how it was intended to be read. I know how I want to read it since I have been charmed -- or maybe seduced -- by the narrator's previous comic fervor.

But I also think That many young readers take everything the book's protagonist says at simple face value and that Thompson/Duke MEANS WHAT HE SAYS. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, the way old men become when the gap between them and those they teach is so great that we can only guess at how they see the world. See, this is -- for me -- the moment in the book in which I must get serious, must begin a conversation with the book if I am to continue to be comfortable with it. How does he feel about women? And does it matter? does it matter? does it matter?

A point: We must not forget the book's epigraph, which puzzles me because it does not seem consistent with Thompson's idea about the advantages of semi-permanent intoxication:

"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man" -- Dr. Johnson

No. It can't be that simple.

One final thing: The scene in which Thompson proposes Lucy be prostituted reminds me of the scene in Nathaniel West's "Miss Lonelyhearts" where that increasingly unhinged custodian of a newspaper advice column hears a drunken barroom story about -- and I'm paraphrasing from memory -- a woman who was perceived as stuck up and, as a result, was taken into the backroom and "ganged proper" for three days.

That is just one scene in that novella suggesting that boys and girls we live in hell. Tore me up when I was 19 or 20. No doubt in my mind how most people would read that scene, how their attitudes would be shaped toward Miss Lonelyhearts as he listens. Now, could Thompson have had that book and that scene in mind when he talked about Lucy? Could he have been layering the meaning, flattering those who know the West novel, trying to make it hard on those readers who up to this point in F&L are taking Duke whole, taking him straight as bent as he is?

I'm just saying you can read the book more than once, more than twice, more than three times and find things to talk about.

Addendum: Well well well. My modus operandi is to write from memory and then google since Fresh and Honest and Sometimes Wrong is my motto in this little non-political blog. Thus after the fact I discover that "The Ginger Man" made at least one list of top English-language novels of the 20th Century. It was 99th, just after "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and just ahead of "The Magnificient Ambersons." Also, I did remember it correctly: lots of dr*inking and lots of f*cking.

Addendum II: An old Chronicle hand shares a thought so relevant to the matters discussed that I raise it up from "comments" to the ur-document itself:

Michael: I think your suspicion that Hunter was a pig is well founded. He hung around the Mitchell Brothers theater when that was going strong. Women were just so much meat in that venue.

And a youth adds:

I too have been a big fan since errant, dour teenhood, when I fancied addiction and ether binges would at least define me as something! But a writer friend from LA delivered the 'coup de grace' when I sent her a recent HST tribute, saying she hated to be the wet blanket, but where was the 'R' word in Hunter's ouvre: namely the (gulp) Responsibility of reminding fellow gonzo devotees that, at the very least, notes should be readable the next morning? Or perhaps not. He DID tell it like it is/was, and will be missed in this age of 'emplantation.' (is that the word?).

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