Thompson Knew in ’72

12:21 pm in Uncategorized by Anthony Noel

Hunter S. Thompson in sunglasses & Hawaiian shirt

It’s a mistake to focus on Hunter Thompson’s debauchery while ignoring his political wisdom.

Go to GoodReads, search on Hunter S. Thompson, and you’ll get first-page results like this:

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’

And this:

I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

Thanks to quotes like those, the efforts of Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, and Garry Trudeau — and the fact that Thompson was every bit as wild as they portrayed him — his name will probably forever conjure Raoul Duke, the outsize self-portrait he wove in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — a.k.a. “Uncle Duke” in Trudeau’s Doonesbury.

But remembering Thompson only as a Ralph Steadman caricature is a mistake. Immeasurably more important — more even than that “expensive little twister rising up from the Great Red Shark” — is Thompson’s gift for keen social and political analysis. In a single presidential election, he taught us more about who controls America than the combined work of all those who pounded the same beat for entire lifetimes.

Nonetheless, since stumbling upon Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas shortly after its publication, I — like legions of others — had been most enamored of Thompson’s scathing wit; most engaged by his Sixties sentimentalism; most vicariously thrilled (right!) by his dedication to mind-altering substances — and, as a writer, wholly envious of his ability to smite even the jumbo-est mumbo-ers in 10 words or less.

There’s not much of that Thompson I haven’t read, along with his (more or less) straight reporting (Hell’s Angels), fiction (The Rum Diary), and the vast collection of letters and essays he banged out on his IBM Selectric.

The excellence of it all should have convinced me years ago, but until two recent, ridiculously long experiences “in the system” (as the air travel monopoly now calls it), and for reasons I’ve resigned myself to never fully knowing – Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, which I now consider Thompson’s masterwork, was a blip on the radar I chose to ignore.

*ping*

Maybe its half-borrowed, ungainly title had me thinking it was an attempt to capitalize on the success of that other Fear and Loathing.

*ping*

Maybe it was the age of the story itself.

*ping*

Or maybe, rather than ignored, I avoided Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 for the same reason others have: The depression I knew reading it would cause, thanks to the story’s already-known, fateful ending.

Whatever the reasons, not reading it until now was a mistake.

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