Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Drugs, thugs and bugs: Stranded on the Proud Highway with Dr Gonzo

From the Vaults: It is a surreal moment in any scribe's life when you are asked to review the work of one of your heroes. It was with trepidation, awe, fear and, yes, a modicum of loathing, that I prised open the weighty tome comprising Hunter S Thompson's first volume of collected letters, and it was with shaking hands and abject humility that I pecked out my unworthy review for the books section of South China Morning Post. Here's my road trip up The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, but I suggest you take the journey for yourself. Buy the ticket and take the ride. RIP Hunter S. 

The very name Hunter S. Thompson conjures up a bizarre mixture of images: a drug-fuelled booze-monster sitting naked on an Aspen porch, firing at small animals with an unfeasibly large firearm; a rangy frame and a shiny cranium, bashing away at a typewriter, making a strange kind of sense from crazed sojourns on the wilder shores of politics; a redneck tempting fate on a massive hog, howling like a werewolf through the twists and turns of California's switchback coast roads; an iconoclast; a sage; an irascible court jester; purveyor of bitingly eloquent hyperbole; and undeniably, inescapably, the eye of Typhoon Cool.

Anyone who has hung on for the crazy ride that has been Thompson's literary life - from his Hell's Angels stomping, to being out near Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs kicked in, to his fear and loathing-laden forays into the dark heart of the American dream - is in for a treat with the publication of this work.

It is the first volume (two more are promised) of his collected correspondence. These twisted epistles span his formative years as a writer: from a talented if wayward student in Louisville, Kentucky, to his 1967 breakthrough publication, Hell's Angels.

Perhaps the most striking thing that emerges from this collection, compiled by Douglas Brinkley, director of the University of New Orleans' Eisenhower Centre for American Studies, is Thompson's unswerving sense of destiny. Even as an 18-year-old, he was keeping carbons of his prolific correspondence, confident of his emergence as the next F Scott Fitzgerald.

And what correspondence it is. Clifford Ridley, the prescient editor of the National Observer, was one of the first to realise that Thompson's demented rants on why he couldn't produce an article during his reporting stint in South America often made better reading than the articles. He published Thompson's hilarious and often hysterical missives as he battled dysentery, thugs and bugs.

The Proud Highway shows Thompson hit upon his unique prose style at a tender age. The first screed in the book, written to a friend when Thompson was posted to a Florida air force base shortly after finishing high school, already resonates with those familiar, mordant rhythms.

He recalls 'the cold and clammy feel of a beer can clutched in my hand, the witless screech of the crowd at a football game' almost in the same breath as he complains: 'I drink approximately 20 cups of coffee every 24 hours and manage to sleep about five hours a night. Of course it goes without saying that I'm jumpy as a cat and am extremely unpleasant and sarcastic most of the time.' Yet, if he was writing like a besieged, substance-abusing paranoiac even in his teens, his letters reveal that the style came from a sharp and original intelligence and a burning desire to stake his claim on America's literary landscape. We follow his frustrations and fortunes as, between dead-end jobs and reporting assignments, he labours through two novels that are never to see the light of day. (NOTE: Subsequently, one did: The Rum Diaires, which may or may not have Hunter S. turning in his grave).

But Thompson has the last laugh on the publishing houses, cannily realising that a novel by any other name would read as sweet. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas earned him the dubious distinction of being labelled the first 'gonzo journalist', with its apparent fusion of fact and fiction. But his author pal William Kennedy, in the foreword, quotes Thompson's words to give the lie to this: 'As true gonzo journalism, this doesn't work at all - and even if it did I couldn't possibly admit it. Only a lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true.' Therefore, Kennedy posits, the druggy odyssey 'was not lunacy defined but lunacy imagined: in short, a novel'.

Through his letters, we watch as events shape the Thompson philosophy. A savage beating in New York sparks his obsession with firearms and self-defence. Rejections and bad editing fuel his rage against the mainstream press, which he sees as 'sycophantic mouthpieces for the Rotary Club, the US Government and the Eastern establishment'.

There are also some startlingly oracular moments. As early as 1964, he prophesied that Ronald Reagan was 'the prototype of the new mythological American . . . who will probably some day be president'. He had already embarked on his legendary hate affair with Richard Nixon a year earlier, excoriating him as 'a vengeful Zero with nine lives'.]

The novelist Pico Iyer wrote that Thompson, like all great wits from Oscar Wilde to Gore Vidal, saw early on that 'a pose was more compelling than a personality', and that from a young age 'Thompson was a legend in his own mind, playing himself with mean authority'. But perhaps his prodigious correspondence was also a touchstone of normality for him. As he wrote to one of his childhood buddies, his letters provided 'the only way I can look at life objectively'.

The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman by Hunter S. Thompson Villard, $300

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