Hunter S. Thompson ended a self-imposed retirement from New Journalism in 1983, returning in the bizarre literary persona of a primitively vengeful deity. "I am Lono," Thompson proclaimed. "I am the one they've been waiting for all these years" (Thompson and Steadman 1983, 150). His comic transfiguration from free-lance writer to Hawaiian god in The Curse of Lono, ostensibly an account of the Honolulu Marathon, represents more than another installment of freelance Gonzo-style sports reporting. A character in Thompson's comic narrative recognized this with a warning: "You've gone too far this time. It's not funny anymore. You're fucking with their religion" (153).
Apocalyptic religious motifs resonate through Hunter Thompson's literary corpus, a more recent manifestation introducing Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s:
I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than anything else in the English language.. . because l love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music. (1988, 9)
The "fearful intensity" of Revelation, "a thunderhead mix of Bolero, Sam Coleridge and the ravings of Cato the Elder," Thompson wrote, is an inspirational "litany of doomsday gibberish" (1988, 36).
Language and madness--these terms signify Thompson's secularized style of literary prophecy. Like biblical prophecy, Thompson's reportage takes the form of volatile denunciatory literary jeremiads, challenging and reproving conventional morality, politics, and culture. "Most smart people tend to feel queasy when the conversation turns to things like 'certain death' and 'total failure' and the idea of a 'doomed generation,'" Thompson proclaimed. "But not me" (1988, 299). "I am comfortable with these themes.... Any conversation that can make smart people confront a mix of Death, Doom and Failure with a straight face is probably worth listening in on" (1988,299). His Gonzo-style reporting in six books and other "major statements of our time" constitutes the "ravings" of a postmodern Jeremiah whose prophetic narrative discourse ranks him as the most brilliantly outspoken moralist to practice New Journalism.
His Gonzo brand of New Journalism, Thompson insists, transforms the writer into a performer. "True Gonzo reporting needs the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy balls of an actor," he wrote.
Because the writer must be a participant in the scene, while he's writing it. Probably the closest analogy to the ideal would be a film director/producer who writes his own scripts, does his own camera work and somehow manages ro film himself in action, as the protagonist or at least a main character. (1979, 120)
Playing a minor role in his first and somewhat conventionally written book, Hell's Angels, Thompson produced the account after a year's "close association" with the "outlaw motor-cycle gang"--"riding, loafing, plotting, and eventually being stomped" (1966, 279). His Scanlan's Monthly article June 1970), "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," set the stage for Thompson's distinctive first-person style in which he becomes the central dramatic figure. The story begins: "I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal" (1979, 23).
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas radically broke with conventional reporting, going far beyond the "Kentucky Derby" performance to establish his own "outlaw journalist" reputation. In the drug-crazed persona of a pill- popping "Raoul Duke," Thompson stars in his outlandish coverage of a district attorneys' meeting convened to deal with I the drug menace." Thompson, alias Raoul Duke, traveled through his hallucinatory schizophrenic narrative using several guises: "Doctor of Journalism" ("Watch your language! You're talking to a doctor of journalism!" [1971, 19]) and "Doctor of Divinity, a certified minister of the Church of the New Truth" ("another fucked up cleric with a bad heart" [203-41). His fractured multiple-identity persona was an actor's mask, a dramatic ploy to criticize the "Drug Culture of the Sixties" and the "American Dream" for being a "monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger," like Thompson as Duke, "just sick enough to be totally confident" (204).
Thompson was less confident about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a literary work, describing it as a "gimped effort" at New Journalism, a "failed experiment in Gonzo Journalism," and "a victim of its own conceptual schizophrenia, caught & finally crippled in that vain, academic limbo between 'journalism' end 'fiction' " (1979, 122). Thompson later admitted that his Vegas saga was a "happy work of fiction"--"Only a goddam lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true" (1979, 122-23). Yet, even "failed" Gonzo was not New Journalism to his way of thinking. Unlike Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, Thompson told a Playboy interviewer, "I almost never try to reconstruct a story. . . They tend to go back and recreate stories that have already happened, while I like to get right in the middle of whatever I'm writing about--as personally involved as possible." 1 Indeed, Thompson bristled at the idea of even being a reporter: "I'm not a reporter. I'm a writer."
I've never tried to pose as a goddam reporter. l don't defend what I do in the context of straight journalism, and if some people regard me as a reporter who's gone bad rather than a writer who's just doing his job--well, they're probably the same dingbats who think John Chancellor's an acid freak and [Walter] Cronkite is a white slaver. (1974, 246) 2
The Chancellor/Cronkite put-ons found their way into Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 as part of "an obvious heavy-handed joke," "a slash of weird humor" to relieve the monotony of politics (1974, 88).
Weird humor laced with strident invective is Thompson's Gonzo trademark, setting his work apart from conventional straight reporting and even New Journalism. Humor and satire are the moralist's weapons, and Thompson wields them with deadly and hilarious vengeance. A few examples from Generation of Swine make the point:
Ronald Reagan: "For the last 20 years he has functioned brilliantly as the
flag-waving front man for a gang of fast-buck
Southern California profit-takers who no longer need him." (186)
George Bush "He has the instincts of a dung beetle. No living politician can match his talent for
soiling himself in public.
Bush will seek out filth wherever it lives... and when he finds a new heap he will fall down and
wallow crazily in ir, making
snorting sounds out of his nose and rolling over on his back and kicking his legs up in the air like
a wild hog coming to
Oral Roberts: "Oral Roberts is a greed-crazed white trash lunatic who should have been hung
upside down from a telephone
pole on the outskirts of Tulsa 44 years ago before he somehow transmogrified into the
money-sucking animal that he
became when he discovered television." (229}
George Bush "He has the instincts of a dung beetle. No living politician can match his talent for soiling himself in public. Bush will seek out filth wherever it lives... and when he finds a new heap he will fall down and wallow crazily in ir, making snorting sounds out of his nose and rolling over on his back and kicking his legs up in the air like a wild hog coming to water." (228)
Oral Roberts: "Oral Roberts is a greed-crazed white trash lunatic who should have been hung upside down from a telephone pole on the outskirts of Tulsa 44 years ago before he somehow transmogrified into the money-sucking animal that he became when he discovered television." (229}
His admittedly "extremely harsh language" (1988,227) used to denounce televangelists for being "the scum of the earth" and "acting like a gang of baboons" (229) was turned on television itself:
The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.... Mainly we are dealing with a profoundly degenerate world, a living web of foulness, greed and treachery . . . which is also the biggest real business around and impossible to ignore. You can't get away from TV. It is everywhere. The hog is in the tunnel. (1988, 43 - 44)
Like televangelists and television, Thompson castigates journalism, "a low trade and habit worse than heroin, a strange seedy world full of misfits and drunkards and failures. A group photo of the top ten journalists in America on any given day would be a monument to human ugliness" (1988,10).
Much of the rhetorical savagery of his satirical epithets possesses the tonality of a demonic doomsday oracle. Images of death, dismemberment, and destruction describe Washington, D.C., with "blood in the water," "human remains on the sidewalk," and "the hallways in the White House basement. . . slick with human scum" (1988,218). Thompson wreaks rhetorical vengeance upon White House officials for their deceptions and betrayals, his language a postmodern parody of the Old Testament prophets Amos and Jeremiah:
Valium sales will soar, and the stomach pumps at Bethesda will be kept cranked up at all times....There will be uncontrolled howling and weeping, and many patients will be chained together like common criminals, with numbers inked on their foreheads and subpoenas attached to the backs of their gray pajamas with super glue and duct tape. (1988, 213)
Indeed, political corruption--Watergate in the 1970s and Iran-contra in the 1980s--operates as a metaphor in Thompson's works for the degradation of American culture. Deception, fraud, greed, hubris, lying, and relentless perjury, among many others--all are indicted and condemned in an explosively prophetic moral rhetoric.
For instance, consider Thompson's "ravings" about the "generation that once embraced the Reagan Revolution"--"The Generation of Swine"-- whose heroes stand publicly accused and mocked for "fraud, corruption and flagrant swindling" and who have been taught that "rain is poison," that "sex is death," and that "there is not much left except TV and relentless masturbation" (1988,10-11). The "shame and degradation of the 1980s prompt Thompson's quasi-religious speculations about the ambivalences and contradictions of American culture in terms of Heaven and Hell. "Hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix," Thompson wrote,
--a clean and well-lighted place full of sunshine and bromides and fast cars where almost everybody seems vaguely happy, except (or the ones who know in their hearts what is missing.... And being driven slowly and quietly into the kind of terminal craziness that comes with finally understanding that the one thing you want is not there. Missing. Back ordered. (1988, 11)
In Thompson's scheme of things, Hell and its inhabitants look suspiciously like shoppers at a suburban American mall, hollow men and women whose "vaguely happy" mannequin like faces disguise their emptiness.
His attempt to describe Heaven unleashed a lengthy single-sentence Gonzo-style screed that ended in failure with the conclusion that "maybe there is no heaven."
Heaven will be a place where the swine will be sorted out at the gate and sent off like rats, with huge weirs and lumps and puncture wounds all over their bodies-- down the long black chute where ugliness rolls over you every 10 or 16 minutes like waves of boiling asphalt and poison scum, followed by sergeants and lawyers and crooked cops waving rule books; and where nobody laughs and everybody lies and the days drag by like dead animals and the nights are full of whores and junkies clawing at your windows and tax men jamming writs under your door and the screams of the doomed coming up through the air shaft along with white cockroaches and red stringworms full of AIDS and bursts of foul gas with no sunrise and the morning streets full of preachers begging for money and fondling themselves with gangs of fat young boys trailing after them. (1988, 11)
This is the "pure gibberish" of a self-confessed "demented imagination," a bizarre, unrestrained, and extravagant vision combining apocalyptic motifs of the Book of Revelation, the tortured, nightmarish iconography of Hieronymus Bosch, and the existential blasphemies of Samuel Beckett. Behind the mask of laughter and linguistic bravado, Thompson relentlessly confronts his great themes of Death, Doom, and Failure, telling us in often hilarious ways that American culture and institutions are absurd, a matrix of insanity that cannot be redeemed. No exit. No escape. No salvation.
Hunter S. Thompson emerges from his works as the practical joker of New Journalism, a clown whose comic antics--he's a character in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury"--and satirical put-downs obscure the underlying moral seriousness of his cultural criticism. His Gonzo-style reporting speaks with a shrill, prophetic voice, warning readers that their quest for salvation and transcendence invariably leads to self-delusion in a culture in which "the yahoos never sleep" (1988, 32). Thompson performs with "An acrobat's sense of things, a higher and finer touch" and "a fatal compulsion to find a higher kind of sense in things that make no sense" (1988, 54). In a culture afflicted with terminal craziness, Thompson's demented ravings represent the voice of sanity.
"Take my word for it, folks," Thompson says. "I know how these things work" (1983, 32).
2. Thompson spent some time in the reportorial trenches. According to an "About the Author" blurb ar the end of Hell's Angels (1966), Thompson "has worked on newspapers and magazines in New York, San Juan, and Rio de Janeiro. His articles have appeared in The Reporter, The Nation and Esquire." In the early 1960s, he was a Caribbean stnnger for the New York Herald Tribune, later becoming a South American correspondent for the National Observer. He began writing as a sports columnist in Florida.
-----. 1971. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of The American Dream. New York: Random House.
-----. 1973. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books.
-----. 1974, Nov. "Playboy Interview: Hunter Thompson." Playboy.
-----. 1979. The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time. New York: Summit Books.
-----. 1983, July 21-Aug. 4 "A Dog Took My Place." Rolling Stone. -----. 1988. Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s. New York: Summit Books.
-----. 1990. Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream, Gonzo Papers Vol. 3. New York: Summit Books.
Thompson, Hunter S., and Ralph Steadman. 1983. The Curse of Lono. New York: Bantam Books.
Eason, David L. 1984. "The New Journalism and the Image-World: Two Modes of Orgamzmg Experience." Critical Studies in Mass Communication 1: 51-65.
Finke, Nikki. 1987, Oct. 18. "The New Hunter S. Thompson: A Doctor of Gonzo Journahsm Turns Political Man." Los Angeles Times.
Montgomery, David. 1988, July 24. "Hunter Thompson Flails Away at the Foibles of Life in the '80s." Buffalo News.
Nocera, Joseph. 1981, Apr. "How Hunter Thompson Killed New Journahsm." Washington Monthly 13, no. 2: 44-50.
Pauly, John J. 1988. "Rupert Murdoch and the Demonology of Professional Journalism." In Media, Myths, and Narratives: Television and the Press. Ed. James W. Carey. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 246-61.
Warren, Elaine. 1984, Mar. 1. "Fear and Loathing in Westwood." Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.