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Gonzo Letters

01.29.2001 | BOOKS

Fear and Loathing in America:
The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist

by Hunter S. Thompson
Simon & Schuster, 2000

Imagine the arrogance of a journalist publishing three 700-page volumes of correspondence during his own lifetime -- one-quarter of that published posthumously by Lenin. Where does anyone get off thinking the world cares that much about the life of a hack? I don't know, but after devouring the first two tomes of Hunter S. Thompson's letters, I'm thankful for the density of his ego and in awe of the young Thompson's stamina. Most of the letters in the volume were written in the dead zone between late night and early morning, between stints at the typewriter working on books, articles, and other assorted effluvia from a tireless mind. The old line about Thompson being the product of drugs just doesn't hold up against the marathon straight-edge sessions the Gonz put in at his desk writing smart breathless word bombs to friends and enemies, known and unknown. Readers of the first volume know that Thompson came up the hard way, freelancing and starving before the breakthrough of Hell's Angels in 1966. By the start of this story, Thompson has established himself as a top liberal journalist in high-demand.

Most of his energy during this period was spent not in magazine journalism, which he did little of between 1968 and 1971, but struggling with a book about "The Death of the American Dream," for which Random House had paid a handsome advance. For years Thompson grappled with and was thrown by his subject, amassing mountains of muscular but disjointed notes. This Future Book, the thread running through most of Volume II, would ultimately come out not as the political journalism HST intended, but as the psychedelic classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. (It bombed upon its debut in 1972, but now has a place in the Modern Library.) After delivering Vegas, HST turned to campaign coverage and emerged as a nationally known figure in his role as Washington correspondent for Rolling Stone. The letters illustrate his friendship with George McGovern as well as his profound political commitments, something easy to forget these days as HST busies himself writing football for ESPN and doing the lecture circuit. But Thompson was a good -- if independent -- leftist. He hated the war, hated the cops, hated corporate power, hated hypocrites. They were all "pigfuckers" and he went after them with heart.

Nowhere do his politics come out better than in his Freak Power candidacy for sheriff of Aspen, well documented in the book. Thompson was active in local politics and supported the leading liberals/radicals of his day, but also denounced what he saw as the victimology of the left and wasn't afraid to say so. Some comments to his more civil rights oriented friends are downright, um, "insensitive." But Thompson cracks nuts; that's what he did and occasionally still does better than anyone. That's why he's the king.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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