Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Ibid Says Hunter Thompson Was a Genius, But Op Cit Thinks He Just Got Lucky on the Juice

What I'm saying is that I'm not going to write about "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" until I go to my office and get my copy of the book and look at the what I've written in the margins and what I've underlined and what I've written on the flyleaf and inside the back cover and up and down the spine.

I'm saying that this is a considerable book. I've taught it in my literary journalism class many times, and it has one of the qualities that make a book last, at least for a while. It has depth, it has levels and it invites interpretation. I honor it by holding back until I have the text -- the specific words, the quotations -- to illustrate its richness of possibility. For instance -- I will say this; can't stop now; roll tape -- that Thompson's suicide is consistent with one way of reading F&L. You can argue that it's a book about the necessity of numbing one's self when confronted with the ugliness of modern life. "Man, being reasonable, must get drunk." That's Byron. At some point numbness is not enough. So you kill yourself.

Of course, 1) Thompson the man is not Thompson the implied author of F&L. We aren't naive readers. The fiction -- and it is a fiction no matter what the autobiographical background -- is complete in itself. We don't look at the real man and confuse him with "Raoul Duke." (We don't say Hamlet really hated his father in spite of all those expressions of love in the play because the Oedipus Complex obtains in the "real" world, and the fiction must fall in line.) Thompson's manner of death really is irrelevant. 2) All the other ways to read the book! You can say it's vatic, it's prophecy, it's the Delphic oracle drunk on fumes saying the big things that were (sometimes) true if terrifying. He intoxicates himself to break through rationality and tell the deep truth....

That's enough of that. I'll get the book. I'll look at my notes. I'll get the book and I'll ponce around, doing the academic dance, the Close Reading. A general comment or two right now, though. Thompson really hasn't mattered as a writer of new things for 30 years. He did Nixon and he did Vegas, and those were narratives, great stories. After that Thompson just gave us bits and pieces of the old shtick. When he was writing for the Examiner in the 80s, he was not a must-read. The talk at the M&M, that great newspaper bar, just a few steps away from the Chron and the Ex, was often about how hard it was to squeeze out of Thompson what made its way into print. A lot of it looked squeezed out, and the rumor that you would sometimes hear over drinks was that sometimes Thompson did not produce and that there was an editor at the old Ex who could and did write a Thompson piece when he didn't deliver, that he was a guy who could do Thompson in gasps as well or better than Thompson.

Was that true? So much malice at the M&M. So much jealousy. Could have been a big big lie. But I don't think I was the only one who thought the rumor might be true because so much of what he wrote in later years was not.... The word I want is incandescent. When Thompson was telling a tale, not just throwing off sparks, what he had to say could be the most incandescent vitriol. I've gone to Romanesko and clicked through some of the tributes, and some thoughtful folk have noted that Thompson doesn't matter that much to young journalists any more. I think that's true.

I'll go the office tomorrow and get my book and I'll say more.

Addendum: Brother Bob Wieder is a merry old soul. A merry old soul is he. He's got something to say about Hunter S.

Addedum II: So much nonsense being written about HST, more every moment, rising like a tsumani, which is certainly a tribute to his impact. The chum is in the water and big fish and little fish and rubber fish all try to dip their beaks. Anyway, one piece of nonsense I’ve heard just often enough to make me talk back is that bloggers are the lineal descendants of HST. Well, don’t we wish. HST was a man who managed to get paid for doing what he did back in the days before he was a name and could just throw the rag out there and get a check. I concede a few people are making a living out of blogging, but ninety-nine point many decimal places out percent of bloggers are self-published vanity press cardboard pirates. And I mean the ones with ten thousand hits and day and the big names. They spend their days huddling over the computer, not immersing themselves in the destructive element, as did HST. That's not really the point. A handful of bloggers may be sustaining themselves with their work as HST did. But I have yet to read a blogger who writes as well as HST did at his best. In the world of blogging, incoherent indignation is the coin of the realm. Anyone can froth at the mouth, but HST was an artist, poor man. God's sake he said he copied F. Scott Fitzgerald by the page word for word to find the rhythm -- and I believe him.

Let’s put it yet another way. When everyone’s an outlaw, no one is an outlaw. Thompson as proto-blogger! Don’t they wish. Don't I wish.


Anonymous said...

Tom Wolfe wrote in the WSJ that Humphrey (his real name) Thompson was the Mark Twain of the 20th century, which puts him too high. S.J. Perlman and Waugh were funnier longer and some of P.J. O'Rourke's work was as good. But Hunter, who I think was put on the map by the cudda-been-great Warren Hinkle, got some terrific assignments from RS and wrote drunk and stoned with deadlines closing in with each tick of the clock. This combination had the effect of vaporizing the inner censor who fucks up so much writing. But then the 60s ended in the 70s and so did Thompson's string. The later years were a grim parody. A lucky man, his biographer. The stories about the guy were in some ways as good as his work.


G Pabst said...

OK. I had to look up "vatic." Good one! And Bob had a reference to Leo Gorcey. A great morning all in all.
I'm going to the direct descendent of the University of Paris this afternoon. Want me to grab the book and mail it to you?

G Pabst said...

On second thinking...
Since I've seen your office (tho not lately) and, lacking professional training in archaeology, I might not be able to find the said book.
The offer, nonetheless, stands.

Pastor Kathy said...

When I heard that Thompson had committed suicide, my first association was with Hemingway. Sort of in the sense of, "This was just the way you would have expected his life to end." It just sort of fit with the whole history (and mythology) of the man.

Years after you went on to fame and fortune in San Francisco, I had the privilege of having a not-quite-office-but-better-than-a-cubicle next door to your successor at Atlanta Magazine. And lemme tellya, he was drunk most of the time. Spent most of the time ranting on the phone to his friends. I have no idea when he did his writing. Or if someone else on the magazine had to clean up his stuff to make him look like a terrific writer. He sure wasn't any Hunter Thompson, of that I am sure. But I have never "gotten" this notion that alcohol (and/or drugs) makes someone a genius writer. Imagine how well they might have done had they been sober and thinking clearly.

I also remember the former editor of the magazine that the owners brought back for three months while you were there. Lord, everybody in Atlanta thought the man was a genius. I remember the glowing obituaries when he died. Shoot, I only knew him for three months, it's true. But he was a drunk. Everybody else had to cover for him to get his job done.

Behind every drunken writer is a good editor?

Sorry for the rant. Not like Miss Priss here has a string of bestselling books to HER credit or anything...