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Hunter S. Thompson: The Genesis of Gonzo

Alex Thompson pays homage to journalistic icon Hunter S. Thompson by exploring his life, work and the creation of a genre

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"We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.”
The first line of Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the most iconic openings of all time. As Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr Gonzo speed through the desert with a boot full of drugs and a mouth full of pills, pursued by hallucinatory bats, it’s hard to see Fear And Loathing as anything other than pure fiction. It’s hard to believe it’s the opening sequence in one of the most iconic pieces of journalism ever produced. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas represented a turning point in print culture, the start of an entirely new form of journalism, one concerned less with the objective reporting of events and more with the narrative complexities of subject and subjectivity – gonzo.

“Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously.”
The term ‘gonzo’ was first coined in 1970 to describe Thompson’s seminal work ‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved’ a heavily stylised and graphic account of the journalist’s time reporting on the event and his drug-addled encounters with the racegoers. Travelling back to his hometown of Kentucky, with Welsh illustrator and travelling companion Ralph Steadman in tow, Thompson struggled to find a unique angle to describe the event. He was too far back to witness the races and too drunk to try. He didn’t care for the winners or riders in the events, nor the various controversies surrounding it or even an objective sense of reporting. What he did care about, however, was the people in the crowd surrounding him. “Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money,” he writes “by mid-afternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races”. He captured depravity, greed and violence through extended characterisations, complete with infamous illustrations from Steadman and included his interactions with the characters, as well as his own paranoia, vices and ideology. Heightened by the sheer amount of hallucinogens and alcohol the pair consumed, the grotesque descriptions and messy caricatures became synonymous with Thompson’s style.

Painting lurid portraits of grotesque racegoers, as well as the person ideology and narrative of Thompson himself, ‘The Kentucky Derby’ would go onto form the blueprint for an entire genre of journalism, gonzo journalism. In a word, gonzo is crazy. In two words – batshit crazy.

“ The edge. There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
While the Kentucky Derby may be the first usage of the term ‘gonzo’, it certainly wasn’t Thompson’s first exploration of the genre and technique. The memoir Hell’s Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga, published several years prior, was where Hunter developed his unique journalistic idiosyncrasies. Documenting the writer’s time on the road with the infamous biker gang, the eponymous Hell’s Angels, the memoir followed Thompson as he drank, rode and fought with the Angels, taking the reader deep into a group which had previously been shrouded in mystery. What started as an investigative piece for a San Francisco publication called The Nation spiralled into one of the most iconic pieces of investigative journalism ever produced.

While Hell’s Angels may not have had the profound critique and depravity of his later work, the innovative use of Thompson’s narrator as a character in the account was something which would later come to define his style. Where documentarians and journalists usually act in a purely voyeuristic capacity, to observe and record events, Thompson broke the mould by making himself a sort of protagonist. Through his interactions with characters, gangs or events, the reader is given a more personal account of the subject. While it may simply seem like Thompson’s unravelling trains of thought – the winding and complex tangents he digresses on function in much the same way as the narrative voice in a novel. As such, Thompson began to self-fictionalise.

Originally fascinated with the work of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Thompson looked to emulate the somewhat free-wheeling and loose approach to writing of his idols but in a journalistic form. This, combined with his distinct and unique world view and ideology as well as his use of narrative voice, made his work some of the most fascinating and equally disturbing nonfiction writing of the 20th century. Humour, profanity and taboo formed the framework for his style and the stream-of-consciousness style Thompson favoured supported this and birthed some truly unique work. “There is no such thing as objective journalism,” he writes, “the phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms”.

“Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism.”
Hunter S. Thompson is best known for his semi-autobiographical novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – a drug fuelled dive into the depth and depravity of the American dream via a road trip across Nevada. Rolling Stone magazine originally commissioned Hunter to write several hundred words on a motor-cycle race in the desert however the piece spiralled into a dense and weaving exploration of the drug-addled psyche and hypocrisy of American greed – a manifesto steeped in psychedelics.

The subtitle ‘a savage journey to the heart of the American dream’ makes this abundantly clear. Much like the slow spiral to madness depicted in Heart Of Darkness, Thompson’s characters find themselves on both a literal and metaphorical journey to the corruption and greed at the heart of post-war America.
Rooted primarily in the author’s own experiences, the course of the novel is mainly skewed by fiction in the ‘roman à clef ’ style – where a true account is told through the lens of fiction and interpretation becomes more important than fact.

“When The Going Gets Weird, The Weird Turns Professional.”
While the writer is probably best known for his outlandish misadventures or detailed exposés of movements and subcultures, Thompson was also a prolific political journalist and satirist, who took his natural flair for painting chaotic and grotesque images of depravity and applied it to politics. This concept formed the basis for his 1972 book Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail: 72, a brutal and scathing attack on the political establishment which saw the journalist take aim at politicians, journalists and the media. Thompson’s complete disregard for the norms of form and feature in political journalism made his writing some of the most influential of the era.

“Too weird to live, too rare to die.”
After he soared to fame as his work and persona took on greater celebrity than he could imagine, Thompson began to cave to the pressure of his own self-forged identity. When reporting on a Muhammad Ali fight for Rolling Stone, Thompson missed the fight as he was out of his mind on drugs – floating naked in a hotel swimming pool along with several kilos of marijuana he’d thrown in. “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” he argues.

Everything that had made him an icon – the outlandish lifestyle of drugs, drink and depravity - suddenly overtook his writing all together. He became a sort of caricature, a crazy recluse with a penchant for firearms and cocaine, and as his fame steadily increased, as did the insane habits.

‘3:00 p.m. rise,’ begins his daily routine, recorded in the biography Hunter: The Strange And Savage Life Of Hunter S. Thompson. ‘3:05 Chivas with the morning papers, Dunhills. 3:45 cocaine. 3:50 another glass of Chivas, Dunhill. 4:05 coffee, Dunhill. 4:15 cocaine. 4:16 orange juice, Dunhill. 4:30 cocaine. 4:54 cocaine. 5:05 cocaine.’

“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.”
By the time Hunter S. Thompson took his own life in 2005, he had become a literary superstar. His work had sculpted an entirely unique genre of journalistic writing, his style going on to influence a whole generation of musicians, writers and poets and his exploits forever immortalised in some of the 20th century’s greatest non-fiction works. It’s reductive to just dismiss him as some sort of drug-addled lunatic, a tormented genius with a bucket hat and an endless supply of cigarettes. Thompson is perhaps the perfect case study for an artist whose image and identity have been co-opted by a cult following. I’m not going to argue that his work was necessarily the cleverest or most technically impressive of its kind, or anything other than enjoyable pulpy journalism, but it’s hard not to admire Thompson for his sheer creative force, unapologetic weirdness and bitter insight that continues to influence writing today

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