Bedtime for Gonzo

There's a point late in Fear and Loathing in America, the second volume of Hunter S. Thompson's collected letters, where he generally stops ending letters with "Ciao" or "Sincerely" and starts signing off with "Cazart." Somewhere in that flourish of Gonzo-speak is the sound of Hunter S. Thompson hardening into Hunter S. Thompson.

Longtime fans know the rest of the story. The idea of Hunter S. Thompson has long since overtaken the actual writer -- the startlingly original prose stylist and satirist whose dispatches from the dark corners of American culture and politics definitively chronicled "The Sixties" and their dank hangover. When he's not essentially portraying his epically excessive Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas alter ego in college lectures and comically appropriate brushes with the law, he's recycling old material and regurgitating old riffs -- self-parodic blurts of brutality and bile, fear and loathing signifying nothing. He's morphed into a living Ralph Steadman cartoon.

Thus the ongoing release of Thompson's voluminous correspondence. From these books' doorstop bulk to the presence of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Douglas Brinkley as their editor, it's all about Resurrecting Hunter, rehabilitating the crazy uncle of modern American letters into an artist worth caring about.

The first volume, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, was a blazing success, blasting through the collected crust of Gonzo Inc. to present a compulsively entertaining, finely contextual self-portrait of the artist as a restless, reckless, fiercely egotistical, fiercely intelligent young man. Its follow-up, "Fear and Loathing in America," is a much trickier affair. In a way, this is really two books. The first one is about Thompson developing the political and rhetorical ideas that would inform his best work, and it's almost as revelatory as "Proud Highway." The second one is about Thompson becoming a star -- or "building his legend," as the book jacket puts it -- and that's a different story altogether.

"America" begins in 1968 with Thompson, fresh from the semisuccess of his groundbreaking study Hell's Angels, suddenly finding himself a writer in demand. He immediately signed a deal with Random House to do an impossible book built around the notion of "The Death of the American Dream" and spent the next three years trying to figure out exactly what he was supposed to be writing about. In the meantime, he tinkered with fiction, did magazine work (invariably struggling with his pathological inability to meet a deadline or give editors what they wanted), and got heavily involved in local politics in Aspen, Colo., where he'd settled in the mid-'60s.

At their best, the letters from this period showcase Thompson's bent humor (in a 1971 missive he tweaks his jet-setting, sartorially minded "New Journalism" peer Tom Wolfe, thundering, "[Y]our filthy white suit will become a flaming shroud!") and his emerging, doom-struck sense that the nation has gone seriously wrong. And Brinkley wisely includes both sides of Thompson's love/hate correspondence with the late Chicano militant/author Oscar Zeta Acosta, model for "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'" infamous 300-pound Samoan attorney and a fascinating footnote figure in modern U.S. history.

More than anything, though, "Fear and Loathing in America" fascinates for the insight it offers into Thompson's creative process and, surprisingly, the writing life in general. Much as he later cultivated an image of hard high living, the picture painted here is of a disciplined (!) perfectionist who sweated every word and struggled daily between his need to get something done (he spends much of the book broke and haggling with editors over money) and his equally powerful need to channel his quite real fear and loathing into his work. Thompson's desperation to come to grips with the "American Dream" project and the vagaries of Vietnam/Nixon-era America (which for his purposes amounted to the same thing) is palpable, even poignant. "There is a weird, helpless kind of rage," he tells Jim Silberman, his endlessly patient Random House editor, "in not understanding how I can write so many pages and still not get anything written."

The letters to Silberman are in many ways the heart and spine of "America," a platform upon which the keenly self-aware author hashes out the ideas he'd carry to brilliant fruition in "Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72." (Here's a shocking revelation: Thompson wasn't twisted during most of the events chronicled in Las Vegas. When Silberman figured this out, the author asked him to "keep your opinions on my drug-diet for that weekend to yourself.") And there's a genuine sense of triumph when he pulls it off.

And that's the end of the only really compelling story "Fear and Loathing in America" has to tell. "Proud Highway" and the first two-thirds or so of "America" sustain themselves on the strength of their forward movement, the sense of accompanying Thompson on a personal, political and creative adventure. Once the book passes through "Las Vegas" and its aftermath, there's an unmistakable drift into the realm of persona; we're no longer reading the unvarnished thoughts of an artist at work but dispatches from the life of HST, legendary outlaw journalist. While Thompson would continue doing great work through the ‘70s, as "America" concerns itself more and more with the business of being Gonzo, there's a chilly echo of the empty, self-sustaining exercise his writing would become.

Certainly, it'd be unfair to criticize Thompson at a quarter-century's remove for writing less interesting letters after he got famous. And he's such an intuitive verbal showman that even when he didn't have much to say, his way of saying it has a surface appeal. (This is what he's been coasting on for years.) But if the point of "Fear and Loathing in America" is revelation -- about its subject and his times -- then the last third of the book doesn't have much use (to say nothing of the prospective third volume), at least not for anyone who isn't predisposed to eat up every word of Thompson's for its own sake. For anyone else, the repetitive pileup of minutiae and money talk comes to seem less like a window into Thompson's world and more like a device to pad this into a Very Big Book, as presumably befits a Very Big Subject. More than that, it feels anticlimactic -- the sound of a wild, searching voice settling for whatever worked.

And maybe that shouldn't come as a surprise, or even much of a concern for anyone but Hunter S. Thompson. One thing these "Gonzo letters" make clear is that Thompson did a couple of lifetimes worth of living before he turned 40; it's hard to blame him for wanting to withdraw to the relative peace of his Colorado "land-fort" and rely on whatever worked.

While reading his running account of this period of creative and cultural ferment, I kept scurrying back to my copy of his ‘60s/'70s anthology "The Great Shark Hunt" to reacquaint myself with that wild, searching voice. "I don't know about you," Thompson wrote to Wolfe in 1968, "but in my own mind I value peaks far more than continuity or sustained effort. ... [F. Scott] Fitzgerald spoke in terms of ‘the high white note,' which explains it pretty well -- at least as far as I'm concerned." For a while, Hunter Thompson sang that note, in a way few contemporary writers can match. Whatever has happened since, that singing is worth remembering.

And so much for all that, to borrow Thompson's favorite epistolary transition phrase. Coasting is one thing; the 59-page "Screwjack," Thompson's latest (sort of) offering, is pure shuck, a mean little book that serves no purpose beyond separating completists from 15 bucks.

That's about a quarter per (tiny, large-print) page, or about 50 cents a minute for the half-hour it takes the read the thing. These are not normally the kinds of calculations one makes while reading a book. But then, "Screwjack" doesn't exist to be read so much as owned, based as it is on a decade-old three-story collection previously available only in a private printing of about 300. Which I suppose makes this edition a bargain, comparatively speaking. But it doesn't make the assumptions behind it any less galling, or the stuff inside it any better.

It doesn't help that the only piece even halfway worth reading -- "Mescalito," a mildly diverting journal of the author's first mescaline trip -- is already widely available, in the Thompson anthology "Songs of the Doomed." The other pieces are fictional: "Death of a Poet," a pointless vignette of trailer-park violence, stupid brutality fronting as brutal lyricism; and the title story, a curious, dreamy sketch about a love that dare not speak its name, which makes it sound more interesting than it is.

If you've been waiting 10 years for this, I suggest the library. Enjoy your half-hour. I'm going back to "The Great Shark Hunt."

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