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Book review: <i>Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson</i> by Jann S. Wenner & Corey Seymour

Image icon gonzo.jpg33.74 KB

the cover of the book

If this was a funeral, it would be the loudest, drunkest wake ever, followed by a beery blether about the old dead bastard til the sun comes up.


The famous photo of Thompson - panama hat, gold-rimmed sunglasses, cigarette holder, cool droop of the lips, eyes nowhere to be seen. Just as it should be. That and some predictably grungy text splattered around. (Look, geniuses, you're never going to beat Ralph Steadman at his own game, so please stop making all Mr. Thompson's other books look like something Dean Koontz wouldn't run with on tackiness grounds.)


"A lot of people play hard to get; I play hard to WANT."
-Andrew Dice Clay, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Rock 'n' Roll Detective.

The good

Though it functions as a biography, this blessedly falls under the sub-category of Oral History. Meaning, my dears, that even with the excellent foreword and introduction by Wenner and Johnny Depp behind us, we never leave the informally informative territory of conversational writing. If you're unfamiliar with oral histories, essentially they mean that every event in the subject's life is relayed via transcripts of verbal accounts from the people who were there alongside him. It is left to the reader to filter these accounts with their own bullshit detection software. Smart readers will do this while acknowledging the flaws of human memory, the idealistic haze of Thompson's golden era, and the (often literally) intoxicating sphere of personal charisma which surrounded him.

Though obvious in hindsight, I was not prepared for how well the Oral History Shenanigans would work with the life of Thompson, otherwise I would certainly have read Gonzo sooner. If you're a non-rabid fan of The Doctor and you've been hesitating like I did, I can sympathise. After all, nine tenths of Hunter's writing was already autobiographical, so if you've read his best work, what could be left to enthicken such a hefty doorstop as Gonzo? My assumption was: sycophantic pandering from people lacking the subject's honest perspective, plus the usual fascinating biographical details, e.g. the dreaded "His parents first met in 1923" syndrome. But guess what - Gonzo is the book that the oral history format was invented for, and, as I said, you barely need a minute to work out why.

Hunter's best writing was both anecdotal and semi-autobiographical. He made a career out of the quasi-libellous hyperbolic screed; even his purportedly journalistic writing was never more than a couple of unnamed sources away from a finger-pointing bar rant. Wanner, too good a friend of Thomspon's to do anything else, simply steps back and yells "Fire at will!" Which is of course the best result the reader can possibly hope for, because although there's the odd salvo of sycophancy - or certainly blind admiration - there's also deafening blasts every other emotion you can name, most especially lengthy fusillades of bemusement, irritation and pity.

Thompson, man and author, is the book's eponymous subject. Inescapably, though, there is a constant narrative overlap between Thompson the man, and The Doctor, Thompson's alter ego - though "uber ego" would be more apt, if you'll forgive the etymological mash-up - who was both the reason for Thompson's broader fame slash notoriety, and the cause of his ultimate downfall. This conflict, existing as it does in the minds of the narrators, audience, and subject, not to mention the external reality of the subject's life and the public domain of his work, forms the engine of the book' narrative, and, indeed, by the final chapters is really the only thing left still capable of pulling it along. But that's not the book's fault, it's the subject's, ultimately. Wenner, justifiably, provides the last word on Thompson V. The Doctor when he states that Thompson should have sued Gary Trudeau for using Thompson's uber ego persona to create his "Uncle Duke" character. I don't happen to agree with this in specific terms (maybe because I'm a cartoonist too), but Wenner's central point is valid. This was the moment when Thompson essentially began inhabiting his own persona, out a desire for fame and adoration. From then on, The Doctor's lifestyle stopped being an exaggeration, and the drugs and lassitude fed on Thompson's talent until all that remained was a sort of three-dimensional Steadman caricature.

Perhaps that's a bit harsh - Hunter did, after all, remain fully aware of what his life had become, and had the strength to put an end to it. My assumptions about Thompson's death were certainly in the circle of those not disabused by Gonzo. The man's suicide was a rational, considered and intelligent act of euthanasia. Of course it was still a selfish action - few of Hunter's weren't - but it was the very antithesis of a "cry for help." Hunter knew what the situation demanded, made his choice, put his affairs in order, waited until he felt the time was right, then shot himself. Being Hunter, e.g. an almost psychotically self-involved mutant with the world's blackest sense of humour, he also tried to do it while he was on the phone to his partner. Ho ho ho, indeed. Fortunately for her, he bollixed up this last cheap gag, but an equally revealing aspect of Hunter's last blast lies in the fact that his grown son was home, in the next room, at the time. To the unfamiliar, both facts seems like epitaphs to an utterly callous, unthinking personality. Well, maybe. But there's more to it than that. Like his sense of humour, Hunter's relationship with his son is something that reveals its shading only through familiarity. Ignoring him from the ages of about 2 until adulthood, Hunter then got to know his son as a grown man, and his son came to know his father as a massively flawed, talented, terrifyingly charismatic, increasingly decrepit human being. He had seen his father in every possible state of intoxication, murderous (though usually ultimately harmless) rage, helpless infantilism in a hospital bed, weak with trauma, an IV drip of saline and alcohol in his arm to keep the DTs at bay long enough for a surgeon to carve him up. He would have been cursed out in multiple languages, called every name under the sun, and yet, like nearly everyone Thompson met, ultimately fallen in love with both the man and the ego. He would have known how much his father desperately needed, throughout his life, to have people he could trust close by him, and how very few of them were men. He would also, unless carved of wood, have hated his father, as all sons do at times, and felt diminished by the man's physical, mental and culture stature and largely self-perpetuated mythology. Finally, he certainly would, like nearly everyone who loved his father, including Wenner, most of the book's contributors, and most of its readers, felt a powerful regret at his father's inability to rescue his talent from his vices - pills, coke, booze, weed, and guns never help but they've got nothing on vanity and sloth. The question all this raises in my mind was the one I could not satisfactorily answer, though this is not the book's fault, but rather life's: Is it fearless to live apart from the herd, or is to escape from the herd an act of fear?

This sense of a wasted talent is genuinely affecting, but no more so than in a thousand other biographies of creative artists. The struggle of a man inside the gilded iron maiden of his ego-built mythos is, though a bit more of a modern thing, still hardly new either. What makes the story of Thompson most unique, to me, is the idea of a man who represents, or who is believed to represent, or claims to represent whenever it suits him, the zeitgeist of an era AND how the ideals for which he is thus believed to stand, when truly enacted (as the believers love to believe they are) affect the man inside the box itself. Rockers like Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor, for instance, embody the lifestyle of a subculture. Of course, as Trent Reznor pointed out after he came back from rehab, when you actually LIVE the dream, instead of just wearing it on weekends to annoy your parents, it's actually a nightmare. Hunter, though, represented more than just the rights of part-time goths to scream "FUCK YOU MUM!!!!!" when she asks if you'd mind please turning the music down. Thompson represented personal liberty and the right, nay, DUTY to speak the truth, in a way that, uncommonly, managed to bridge both sides of politics. P.J. O'Rourke would later achieve this to a certain extent (though he never pretended to be a mouthpiece for any wing other than the right), but Hunter truly spoke for people of both genders across the last three generations and of any political affiliation who believed in a person's God-given rights to do WHATEVER the shit they want in the privacy of their own home, car, or skull. Welded to this was the equally bipartisan belief that the Truth Will Out, Scum Rises Into Authority and we have a right and a duty to scare the bastards in power with what we know. In a page or two left blessedly unforced in the narrative, allowing its truth to emerge untarnished by contextual spin, we're told how Hunter was truly crushed by the loss of Kerry (who Hunter had met, liked, and endorsed) against Bush. It was as if the flames of Hunter's political ire had been, at last, reduced to steaming ash by the apathy and gullibility of the younger and older American voter, respectively. This, then, is the last portrait of a man who embodied the hopes of a subculture and who voluntarily became a figurehead for free speech and free living - to be betrayed by every level of society, and to watch his own country throw away half the freedom they'd fought for so that an unelected idiot boy-king could protect them from an non-existent army at their un-besieged gates. All this and, ultimately, his own decision to turn his alter ego into a lifestyle ate away at his talent until there was little useful left - his article for, written the day after the twin towers fell, shows what he was still capable of, but almost nothing short of national catastrophe could get him to focus long enough to finish an article. As Wenner, his long-time editor and friend sadly notes, Rolling Stone were finally willing to pay him the "Famous Personality" elephant bucks he'd craved all his life, yet by now the writer inside the Personality was simply incapable of a single monthly column.

The bad

"Oh boo-freakin'-hoo. Did the big scary writer man feel a bit sad after he spent his whole life getting high and having movies made about him? Awwwww." You might say that. You might also point out that Hunter was lucky to have anyone around to give a fuck at all, considering how he treated most of the people who loved him, and that many of his long-term companions were, in any case, being paid to be there, and even THEN most of them had to leave eventually before he rendered them irretrievably mental. You could also add that he had an ego the size of Uranus and was entirely responsible for his own fate. You could further state that if he'd devoted even half the time he spent basking in the glow of other people's perceptions on actual writing he could have, for instance, written a book which was something more than a bunch of old articles or a failed novel, and that his two most lauded works - Hell's Angels and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas - were both written long before he'd fallen in love with his own reflection and was still willing to put boots on the ground and hours in front of the typewriter. You might even go so far as to suggest that he habitually treated women as his natural intellectual inferiors, and that, despite being looked after them his entire life, never managed to fit a single sympathetic female into any of his books.

But, as we say in the pro-jex, "Hate the playa, not the game". You can't blame this fascinating book for featuring a dude you don't particularly like, and, objectively speaking, not liking the man doesn't make his story less interesting. Hunter himself was plenty aware of the appeal of the village freak - why else would he have collaborated with Steadman for so long? So he could be FLATTERED at the man's latest scratched, blotted portrait of a black-eyed, bone-skulled zombie contorted hideously by the force of his own drug-fuelled craziness? In truth, I admit, readers tend to b e a bit more subjective than that and you probably won't want to read this if you are totally disinterested in the subject. If, though, you hate the man, and are thoroughly over his bucket-bong cult of personality, you might well find this fascinating.

Apart from anything else, as with the man's writing, there are some great stories here, entertainingly told. My favourite is probably the one related by the wife of a colleague of Hunter's. They were all invited to a swanky catered dinner party along with a coterie of cool writers and such. The woman in question relates how Hunter took her aside before dinner and quietly said, "Don't tell anyone, but I've got two tabs of fantastic acid and I've already taken one, do you want the other one?" After the token decision-making period familiar to all introverts with charismatic friends, she takes the tab and sits down to dinner. When the food arrives in the form of a giant leg of lamb writhing on the plate, she looks around to discover that everyone else at the table is staring at the food in a similarly aghast fashion, and have all, in fact, been individually given acid by Hunter already under the pretext of each of them being the only one to take it other than him. It's a footnote to the main narrative, really, yet this little story demonstrates Thompson's charisma, ability to infect whole situations, ability to persuade people to do crazy things at inappropriate times in on the strength of the fact that they would get to do them with him, his desire to invert the normal world, and the fact that he did, ultimately, like the company of women as much as, and probably more than, that of men.

This is, in short, one of the best biographies I've ever read. It takes no shit from anyone, let alone its own subject, and is relentlessly entertaining, informal and dialogue-driven whilst featuring a good 75% less hogwash and outdated references than its subject's own writing. Get into it.

What I learnt

Much more about the man's life and loves, and the extent to which his writings were fictionalised. As noted above, this book also explained quite well why Hunter never managed to repeat his past glories. But what I really learnt most clearly from Gonzo was what, exactly, can be achieved by a normal human being - not the head of a Sicilian crime family, not a Russian oligarch, not an American film star - who does and says exactly what he wants, when he wants, for his whole life. Like the man, Gonzo is inspiring, exasperating, irritating, hilarious, cranky, charismatic and irresistible.

In short

Title: Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson
Author: Jann S. Wenner & Corey Seymour
Publisher: Back Bay Books
ISBN: 978-0316005289
Year published: 2008
Pages: 512
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Autobiography
Review Type: