In pursuit of the real Hunter S. Thompson
With his considerable help, the media treated him as larger than life. A new film paints him as only human.
By ANDREW DANSBY, The Houston Chronicle
June 27, 2008
Jimbo, if he really existed, didn't represent us well. The Houstonian appeared drunk and gullible just two paragraphs into The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, Hunter S. Thompson's June 1970 story that first appeared in Scanlan's Monthly.
Since Thompson didn't find the American Dream in the decadent and drunken depravity inside the class-warfare-inclined confines of Louisville's Churchill Downs, he kept looking.
Thompson's book Hell's Angels technically launched his career. But his true period of wild influence and wild times was bookended by two sporting events four years apart.
It started at the Derby in Louisville, a horse race Thompson barely bothered to address in a story that defined a style that would become his legend and undoing. It ended in Zaire in 1974. Soaked in alcohol and his own myth, he failed to attend a monumental boxing match and, worse, failed to find a story by not attending the fight.
Norman Mailer, a writer 14 years Thompson's elder and thought to be past his prime, ended up owning the "Rumble in the Jungle," where Muhammad Ali, a Louisville guy like Thompson, knocked out George Foreman.
Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney calls it "a tremendous bungle."
Gibney — who directed the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side as well as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room — made Thompson as the subject of his new movie Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
Thompson's larger-than-life persona already has been made into two feature films. Gibney chose not to propagate the myth. Instead Gonzo, which opens Friday at the Landmark River Oaks, makes the blustery Thompson very human. It projects a sliver of his life when he enjoyed equally formidable successes and failures.
Both made Thompson an icon.
Zaire wasn't Thompson's first taste of failure because he often aligned himself with underdogs who, as expected, lost. But it was his first, though not last, experience with ineptitude.
Gibney suggests Thompson's fumble might have been fueled by failure.
"I think he'd maybe grown tired of always being on the losing side," Gibney says. "He was always backing the noble loser. Ali was such a hero to him. Maybe he'd made up his mind he wasn't going to win. ... And as any sports fan knows, if you give up on your team, you can't come back to them when they win and feel the same. You lose that thrill and satisfaction. He didn't have faith. And it had to take a toll on him."
By that point Thompson was the literary superstar he'd remain until his death. With that stardom came the burden of caricature, so much so that he became one in the Doonesbury comic strip.
Jann Wenner, whose Rolling Stone magazine published Thompson for decades, says in the film that Thompson became "a prisoner of his own fame."
Tom Wolfe said it was "hard for him not to be in costume."
Gibney suggests the same, though he quickly qualifies, "I do think that persona was a work of art."
The filmmaker had to narrow that work of art to fit into a two-hour film. While still addressing Thompson's decline and death, he stays focused on the writer's life and work from 1965 to 1975.
This is the period during which Thompson did his best work.
Douglas Brinkley, a fellow in history at the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy and a professor of history at Rice University, says "the guy was on fire then."
It's been said by prominent free-jazz players that you must learn the fundamentals of the genre before you can deconstruct them. Brinkley, who is also the executor of Thompson's literary estate, says Thompson would type out the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, studying the language.
"I've read the original manuscripts of his work from that era and there's scarcely a comma out of place," he says. "It's perfectly structured prose. We don't give him enough credit for that. He knew how to write. He learned properly how to write. Once he learned that, it became a question of finding his own voice. He found that at the Kentucky Derby."
Brinkley says a new book from Thompson's hot period will be forthcoming in the next couple of years. It was written after Robert Kennedy's assassination, which prompted Thompson to go to Washington to speak to gun lobbyists.
Thompson's peak period also saw the beginning of practices — creative and personal — that were part of his undoing. An ex-wife included in the film called him "tragic." Thompson's "fear and loathing" mantra gets repeated a lot, but the balance of the phrase is worthy of a moment's thought. It was a mission statement, part passive, part active. Prey refusing to let go of its predator. By the time of his 2005 suicide, the fear seemed to consume the loathing. So he checked out.
But along the way he became obsessed with the American Dream, a Fitzgerald theme. It fueled some of Thompson's enduring work.
Gibney's film seems to suggest that Thompson would chase it down one road, and if he reached a dead end, he'd fall back and try another route.
After writing Hell's Angels, which Brinkley described in the movie as "straight journalism, but participatory," Thompson looked for the American Dream in his 1970 campaign for Pitkin County sheriff in Colorado. That campaign has become something of a punchline over time, but Thompson comes across as disheartened after losing the election. "The American Dream is (screwed)," he says flatly.
He didn't really believe that, because he continued to find disappointment seeking it. It became part of the subtitle of his enduring work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.
Gibney points out that Thompson "lived the American Dream in a way. He came out of nowhere and became a pretty famous guy doing what he wanted to do.
"But at the same time he saw the bankruptcy of it, even if he didn't see it in himself. He came out of Vegas knowing that the lie of Vegas is that you can put money in a slot machine or on a card table and it's possible to become a rich man overnight. But that's an illusion because the house always wins. And that's not exactly what you want to think about with the American Dream."
So Vegas was a spiritual bust and a creative triumph. Thompson's style grew more participatory with the 1972 presidential election, where he clearly pulled for George McGovern.
The comic highlight of Gonzo is its revisiting Thompson's famous assessment of Democratic primary candidate Ed Muskie behaving like a man on ibogaine, a psychoactive drug. The tall tale was picked up by other news outlets.
"The idea that some people would've reported on that was hilarious," Gibney says. "If you read carefully you can't really conclude he was reporting. As Hunter said, he was reporting on a rumor ... and he started the rumor."
Wolfe, in the film, compares Thompson to Mark Twain, saying, "He's not trying to fool you. He's filtering reality."
The funny, scathing and irreverent aspects of Thompson's work are sufficiently lauded. But having not read Campaign Trail '72 in a long time, I'd forgotten how passionate he felt about McGovern's campaign. The Thompson caricature — the guy in a hat with a cigarette, a drink and a firearm — had been codified over the years to where he nearly ceased to exist publicly as flesh and blood.
What imitators failed to grasp was that the oft-aped callousness — the wild rants, the references to drug use, the profanity, calling people swine or worse — was a giant defense mechanism for somebody who seemed to feel deeply.
Thompson could be brutal to people, and not just in print. But Brinkley also calls him "a great mensch, one of the sweetest people I ever met.
"His reach into people's lives was extreme. He'd call at all hours of the morning wanting to talk about something. It's something I wouldn't tolerate from somebody else, but with Hunter it was charming."
Thompson had to know he'd failed in Zaire, and he had to know his persona had swallowed his talent.
"It sounds funny to say about a guy who liked to blow things up and who spewed venom all the time, but he was sensitive," Gibney says. "There was always a sensitive guy lurking underneath. I think he did his best writing when he was in a wounded state."
By the end Thompson's wounds were physical. Brinkley points out his numerous health ailments: failing hips and knees, sinus and digestive problems. He and Gibney both point out that persistent drinking didn't help.
Some speculate that the 2004 election sent Thompson into a deep depression. Saturated in booze, he no longer had the tools to try to make sense of any of it. His decades-old nemesis Richard Nixon was dead, and he'd buried that president with a scathing and hateful piece in Rolling Stone.
It was funny in parts, but a bullying commentary, even for Thompson. It's hard to pick on a dead guy, any dead guy, and not seem like the thug.
Traditions — other than his own — were something Thompson had little regard for. They seemed part of bullying codes carried across generations. He wrote critically in Campaign Trail '72 about "off the record" comments, a press courtesy he refused to grant candidates.
Thompson became a proud Kentucky Colonel, not for the tradition but rather to be an irritant on the inside.
Which is likely why he messed with Jimbo from Houston, telling the guy that the Derby was going to be a battleground between the Black Panthers and the National Guard.
" I felt a little guilty about jangling the poor bugger's brains with that evil fantasy," he wrote. "But what the hell? Anybody who wanders around the world saying, 'Hell yes, I'm from Texas,' deserves whatever happens to him. And he had, after all, come here once again to make a nineteenth-century (expletive) of himself in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable 'tradition.'"
Playing a cultural Robin Hood endeared him to his legion, though it also drowned out his shortcomings. He seemed like an outsider, even when he ceased to be one.
"People lived vicariously through Hunter," Gibney says. "He was larger than life, doing all the drugs he could take, drinking all the booze he could drink. Americans love outlaws and he lived on the outside for all of us.
"But I do think he found it lonely out there."
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