Hunter Stockton Thompson was many things, some of them reprehensible. But boring he was not, unlike Peter Richardson’s literary biography of the late writer and personality. “Savage Journey” has none of the risk-taking intensity that characterized Thompson’s own work, and its flaws seem like inversions of its subject’s artistic strengths. The book is cool and impersonal where Thompson was hot and engaged. Stylistically, it’s sometimes awkward and slack, in contrast to the gonzo master’s ability to hit what he called the “high white note” of a hard-won insight or perfect description.
At no point in this relatively brief but meandering study does Richardson put himself on the line the way Thompson did in every sentence he wrote. It’s not even made clear why the book’s writer latched onto his subject, leading one to wonder whether it was simply because the name Hunter S. Thompson—author of the 1972 classic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”; New Journalism pioneer; Hell’s Angels chronicler; unabashed author of “nonfiction novels” and “fictionalized journalism”; Freak Party candidate for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado; self-mythologizing pop culture demigod; hot-tempered gun nut; booze-swilling, coke-headed narcissist—still sells books. Some karmic principle seems to be at work in the fact that the taboo-busting Hunter Thompson—a man who dedicated his life to showing that, as author Richardson notes, it was “square America, and not the counterculture, [that] was truly weird”—is here delineated by a writer himself on the four-cornered side, with nary a hint of irony or countercultural affinity.
Richardson has written a book as thickly padded as Thompson’s expense accounts following his trademark hell-raising, hotel room-wrecking missions into the smoking ruins of the American Dream. The author seems to believe that the best way to trace a writer’s development is via a sideways scuttle through the history of everyone Thompson ever read or met, often without bothering to show how the influence was integrated into the half-brilliant, half-deranged juggling show that was Hunter Thompson in action. Thus we get profiles of everyone from Joan Didion to Nation editor Carey McWilliams to Norman Mailer to Theodore (“The Making of the President 1960”) White to too many more. Endless pages are devoted to Ramparts editor Warren Hinckle and Rolling Stone publisher and primary Thompson enabler Jann Wenner, to the extent that the book sometimes seems more about the San Francisco magazine publishing scene than that world’s most notable writer.
All this background info, delivered blandly, offers a portrait of West Coast culture at a lively moment, supporting Richardson’s less-than-startling contention that the Bay Area hippie scene played a major part in Thompson’s growth as a writer. But the endless digressions grow annoying, and Thompson himself never comes into focus.
The language is a problem, too, on a sentence-by-sentence level. Whereas Thompson’s prose—even in his most chemically compromised moments—is as sharp as a good right cross, Richardson tends toward rope-a-dope. At its worst, the book is oddly clumsy, as in this description of a Thompson piece on writer Henry Miller: “Featuring the region’s sex-crazed tourists exemplified a journalistic maneuver that Thompson quickly mastered.” What he means to say, apparently, is that Thompson knew how to titillate his readers with suggestive details, while simultaneously shaming them for their assumed prurience.
The convoluted sentence hints at the professorial detachment that Richardson maintains toward Thompson, whose work was all about subjectivity and brutal self-disclosure. Thompson made himself the center of his stories because he knew that we cannot abstract ourselves from our own perceptions, and that to pretend to do so produces writing that is not so much truthful as generic and superficial. Richardson lists the ingredients that went into Thompson, but he doesn’t help us understand how he—in collaboration with the gifted Welsh illustrator Ralph Steadman—became the great satirist of his generation, countering the fear and loathing he saw inscribed in the American character with his own blasts of devilish, anarchic rage. That kind of energy comes from deep sources, unsounded here.
From a local angle, the most interesting news flash in Richardson’s book is how close a connection Thompson had with novelist Nelson Algren. We learn that Thompson could “recite the opening paragraph of ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ from memory at 3am.” The writers, born a generation apart, shared a preoccupation with social conformity and decay; Thompson can be seen as bringing Algren’s disillusionment and focus on the suppressed underside of American life forward into the rebellious sixties and the rightward swing that followed. At one point, Thompson said of Algren—then under critical attack—that “no living American had written any two books better than ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ and ‘A Walk on the Wild Side.’” Warm praise, considering that earlier, when Thompson asked Algren for permission to quote a long passage from “Wild Side” in his Hell’s Angels book, Algren politely warned him of legal action should he do so, and advised him that “stuffing somebody else’s material” into one’s own work was no way to live.
In some ways, Hunter Thompson—who listed his key influences as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Dos Passos—was the last in the line of hard-drinking, self-destructive American writers, finally driving this doddering macho tradition off a cliff. When the aging, ailing and depressed Thompson shot himself, Hemingway-style, in his Aspen lair in February 2005, many were saddened but few were surprised.
Whatever one thinks of Hunter S. Thompson as a person, he deserves something better than this pedantic book to memorialize his literary accomplishment. For all his excess, Thompson in his prime captured the zeitgeist better than anybody else. His Nixon-era critique of the reactionary and self-deluding “Silent Majority”—a demographic resembling Trump’s base—has the force of prophecy, as when he describes America as “really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.” The sentence resonates at this moment, as Red states seek to make it a crime for teachers to share unpleasant facts about American history with their students.
As many, including Richardson, have noted, Hunter Thompson, the writer, is overshadowed by Hunter Thompson, the tripping, shade-bedecked gonzo caricature. Those who know only the latter owe themselves the pleasure of dipping into his writings from the sixties and seventies. Read them in the generous and paradoxical spirit of novelist James Salter, who observed, correctly, that “Hunter Thompson is a moralist posing as an immoralist.” Or in the spirit of commentator Matt Taibbi, who noted, “Hunter Thompson was always the polar opposite of a cynic. A cynic … [is] someone who cheerfully accepts the fundamental dishonesty of the American political process and is able to calmly deal with it on those terms, without horror.”
Hunter Thompson felt the horror lurking under the spectacle, and translated it into a pitch-black humor that left readers not merely informed, but aroused and engaged. No saint himself, he knew evil when he saw it. We could use him now.
“Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo”
By Peter Richardson
University of California Press, $27.95, 296 pages