Don Rogers: Writers gone wild
Hunter S. Thompson is a hero to many journalists.
Even otherwise sober community and corporate reporters and editors revere the wild one who invented the hybrid of fact and fantasy we call gonzo. The mad genius who blew stuff up in all ways — especially convention.
Never mind his best work ended well before the ’70s did. The “Fear and Loathing …” tomes have found themselves a hallowed place in modern academia, or at least what passes for it in J school. Young grads pine for first postings in the Caribbean in pursuit of their own “Rum Diary” experience.
Thompson created a genre in which the reporter also is the star, the craziest player on the stage, the narrator you can’t trust. The great exaggerator exposing larger truths.
I read “The Rum Diary,” a “Sun Also Rises” knockoff about boozing and skirt chasing and doing some journalism in there, too. Just couldn’t get through what would become his gonzo style. I found it slapsticky, I guess. Bad enough in fiction, applied to his journalism it struck me as largely BS intended to impress rather than inform. Crazy stories that didn’t come close to ringing true.
I dismissed gonzo as “Look at me!” journalism as vain in its own way as the blow-dried anchors I stopped watching early on. I entirely missed the irony here, and only now have begun to consider Thompson may have been mocking the bubbleheads quite intentionally and artfully.
No, I gravitated in those days to the other wild man of letters, Edward Abbey. Just as crazy in life. Just as outraged at the same things, really. But I read everything by Abbey and almost nothing from Thompson.
I found Thompson an obnoxious ass, a boor. Drunk, drugged up, proud of shooting stuff, blowing up stuff, juvenile stuff. Belligerent, arrogant, in love with his own wit, believing his own baloney, and fawned over for just those qualities. A guy who mostly was famous for being infamous after the ’70s.
Ah, but maybe I was feeling my own father issues. Thompson would be about the same age as my dad if he hadn’t shot himself in 2005 and had his ashes blown out a cannon. They shared their era’s Hemmingway-esque model of what it meant to be a man. My father carried it nowhere near Thompson’s lunacy. But those tough-guy, Mad Man qualities were there. Hard livers, these guys.
Abbey had it, too. I just didn’t see it as much in his writing. Or maybe my wildness tracked closer to his — playing out in the geographic wilderness rather than the mind. I did see him as a real man’s man compared to that wuss, Thoreau, who hung around a backyard pond and found a day hike up a hill in the worn-down Adirondacks scary. Oh, brother.
Thompson and Abbey were the last true howlers at the moon. So far, only poor copies have followed. We can read the wannabe Hunters in Rolling Stone to this day. Abbey’s literary offspring, alas, are too smooth, lyrical and cogent. Where’s the wild outrage between the lines? His pretenders come across as all cool disappointment with a trace of hope we might yet find our way.
It may be that the proximity of Woody Creek, Hunter’s base, to my Colorado home caught more of my attention. He had surgery in Vail, alcohol carefully calibrated in an IV line to help him survive the procedure. I know people who knew him personally.
I had a memorable dinner last year with his son, Juan, a serious-minded IT guy in Denver who finally wrote quite a good book about coming to terms with his dad. We inadvertently tuned out the rest of our group as we geeked out on writing, the craft.
And dear God I worked with (too many) fellow journalists who worshipped the guy. Made him bigger than life, and I always thought made much too much of the legendary stuff — the uproarious outlaw, the gonzo — and too little of the actual talent in there.
I get the wild vein the man tapped. I do. Breaking free of convention, throwing off the chains we lock around ourselves, giving The Man the finger, all that glorious rage and roaring declarations of independence. I am, after all, my father’s son. A coal glows in me, too.
I just wonder how great he could have been sober.
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 477-4299.
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