BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

When the going gets weird ...

This is one of those books that has been lurking in my to-be-read piles for quite a while. I got it as a throw-in on another order about five years ago (it apparently was on some sort of special, as the packing slip, still stuck in the back of the book, lists a price that should be in the “used” category – less than 1/5th of cover price – but as part of a regular order … go figure! … perhaps I ordered it just because it was so cheap) but only got around to reading it now.

I'm pleased to report that William McKeen's Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson is a pretty amazing book … and I'm sort of kicking myself that I didn't get into it previously. To be perfectly honest, I think I enjoyed reading this more than 90% of the books that get processed through my eyeballs in my general run of non-fiction consumption. It is informative, entertaining, poignant at times, and gives the sense of a comprehensive look at its fascinating subject.

Now, I'm assuming that anybody reading this is at least somewhat familiar with the figure of Hunter S. Thompson – a “journalist” who cut a fairly wide swath through the consciousness of the 70's, 80's and 90's. First coming to national attention with his 1966 book Hell's Angels, which detailed his time hanging out with (and occasionally getting beaten up by) that notorious motorcycle gang, which was a book-length expansion of a magazine article he'd done in 1965. He is probably best known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and subsequent “fear and loathing” titles (most focusing on political campaigns).

As familiar as I thought I was with Thompson, it turns out that I'd not actually read much of his stuff (except as published in Rolling Stone back in the day – when he was a key player in that magazine's image). Looking into my collection, I only appear to have two of his titles, Generation of Swine, and Songs of the Doomed, and not any of his “famous” books (an oversight that I suppose I'll have to correct eventually).

One of the main take-aways from this look at his life is how serious he was about the craft of writing, no matter how insane the details of what he was writing about. That being said, it's also pretty clear that he had issues with deadlines (OK, probably “with authority” in general), and was constantly months, if not years late with various projects promised to various publishers.

Outlaw Journalist starts with Thompson's early years (a fairly rough childhood, leading to one of those classic “military or prison” choices being presented to him), which fortuitously ended up with his landing a writing gig at a large Air Force base. It quickly became apparent, however, that he was not cut out for the discipline of military service, and was soon separated (in 1957) from same. While Thompson seemed to want to have a career of writing novels, none of his projects got much traction until the later years of his career (when publishers figured that they could make money putting out anything with his name on it). The book goes into quite a bit of detail on the assorted jobs (most fairly briefly held) he had in the late 50's and into the early 60's. He saw an opportunity in 1962 to head to South America, and managed to talk his way into a contract with a new publication by the Wall Street Journal for him to file reports from his journeys.

McKeen points to this time as the start of “Gonzo”, which he puts in a very particular context:
In these letters to Ridley, {HST's editor at the short-lived National Observer} Hunter's Gonzo style began it rear its head. One of the characteristics of the style Hunter developed was his preoccupation with getting the story. In fact, getting the story became the story. His writing could be classified as metajournalism, journalism about the process of journalism.
Oddly, this made me reflect on my own writing (especially these reviews), with that “meta” element certainly coming into play.

Thompson parted ways with the Observer in 1965, and one of the subsequent projects he landed was an article for The Nation about the Hell's Angels. As noted above, this led to his break-out book, which opened up other opportunities with a wide array of significant publications. One of these was Sports Illustrated which assigned him to produce a 250-word caption for photos of a motorcycle race in Las Vegas in 1971. Thompson ended up submitting a 2,500-word essay, which was rejected, but later picked up by Rolling Stone, giving him the encouragement to expand it into the notorious Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which featured his alter-ego Raoul Duke (initially listed as the author).

Raoul Duke was a repeating character that Thompson employed to be able to, essentially, write about himself … and the character ended up with enough “substance” that he was included for years on the Rolling Stone masthead, being listed as the “sports desk” (having been supposedly a crazed sports writer, going back to “notes” in Thompson's pieces for his sports-writing gig with the Air Force). An interesting side-bar here is that for most of his life, Thompson hated the “Uncle Duke” character in the Doonesbury comic strip. When the character (very plainly based on Thompson's appearance, and Raoul Duke's proclivities) appeared in 1974, it created a type of fame that Thompson was not prepared for … as it mixed up his personality, and that of Raoul Duke, and suddenly everywhere he went, people were expecting him to be that character. While the author notes that Thompson eventually became OK with the whole “Uncle Duke” phenomena, the inability of him to move “invisibly” in the background of events to actually work on stories seems to been one of the key elements to his retreat to near-isolation in Woody Creek, CO.

Another part of the book that I found surprising is that Thompson was pretty much working hand-to-mouth for most of his career. Even after becoming famous, he was still not particularly financially secure. This was an on-going stressor in his personal life. By the early 60's he was married with a young son, but until he got on the speaking circuit (which was still touch-and-go, as he was frequently at odds with the agendas of the schools, etc. which were hiring him to speak), he was constantly in search of just survival money.

His personal relationships are discussed at length here, both with the women in his life (not only the romantic relationships, but also the “support” people that rotated through his world), as well as the wide network of people in the publishing business. Again, this is fascinating reading, but not put in the sort of form that would be useful to quote in this context.

Late in his career, he was having a lot of professional success (with awards and recognitions that seemed to greatly please him), but not producing notable work. Another on-going theme was that when he encountered cocaine, it allowed him to be up and writing, but not of the quality of his earlier material … and he'd have long periods of not being able to write at all. Most of his later books (like the ones I've read) were collections and re-processing of older stuff. The book notes that there were massive amounts of material that he left behind, so there's likely to be more Hunter S. Thompson titles appearing. Of course, the novels and similar pieces that he'd written in the past (and hadn't been able to get published), such as The Rum Diary (made into a Johnny Depp film in 2011) eventually were widely released.

Thompson's physical decline is also given a particular consideration, probably to put his eventual suicide in context. As the years went by, he was less able to get around, and he was well past his “expected” death in his late 20's … one day in 2005 (at age 67) he stuck a gun in his mouth and killed himself.

Again, I was very impressed with the depth of research that William McKeen put into Outlaw Journalist, and the whole thing is quite exceptional. He had previously done another project on Thompson, and reproduces a letter sent to him saying “I warned you about writing the vicious trash about me.”, a sure sign of affection from the Gonzo man himself. This is one of the best biographies I've read, and I really would recommend it to anybody with an interest in any of the wide-ranging topics on which it touches.

Obviously, I'm not the only one who thinks so, as the hardcover (which has been out since 2008) is still in print, as well as a paperback, e-book, and audio edition. The prices are all over the board (I'm still confused as to why the hardcover I got back in 2011 was as cheap as it was), with “very good” used copies of the hardcover being the least expensive option (you can get those for as little as 40¢, plus shipping), with the on-line big boys having this now only a bit off of cover price. You could certainly order this through your local brick-and-mortar, but I'm not sure, this many years past publication, that it will be on the shelf there. In any case, this is a great look at an amazing figure, and I can't imagine anybody not finding this a fascinating read!

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Tags: book review

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