Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo

  • By Peter Richardson
  • University of California Press
  • 296 pp.
  • Reviewed by Daniel de Visé
  • March 14, 2022

How the iconoclastic writer came to embody his alter-ego.

Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo

In his new book, author Peter Richardson argues that Hunter S. Thompson was “the most distinctive American voice in the second half of the twentieth century.”

That’s a tough sell. Thompson wrote three classic books and enough superlative magazine pieces to establish Rolling Stone as a top-shelf publication. But he flamed out before 40, hobbled by drugs and drink and decadence. “Less than a decade after his arrival on the national stage,” Richardson concedes, Thompson “found it difficult to produce a sustained piece of writing without heroic (and largely unacknowledged) assistance from his colleagues.”

Thompson’s real legacy is his persona: bucket hat, aviator sunglasses, cigarette holder, Hawaiian shirt, dilated pupils. Just as Thompson blurred journalism and fiction, the writer himself is hard to distinguish from his alter ego, Raoul Duke, the partly fictionalized, grossly exaggerated acid pirate whom Thompson posits as his surrogate in his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published in 1971. Garry Trudeau named a Doonesbury character Uncle Duke; the New Journalism movement yielded no more memorable character.

In Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo, Richardson traces the evolution of Thompson the writer, from his penniless days writing for leering men’s magazines to his reign at Rolling Stone a decade later. Some call Thompson the founder of “gonzo,” a subset of New Journalism that shed objectivity and thrust the writer to the center of the story. As Richardson explains, the truth is more complex.

Thompson is the only real icon of gonzo, a subgenre all his own. He occupied the lunatic fringe of a movement that never sat neatly within the boundaries of fiction or nonfiction. Thompson took his cue from a generation of journalistic novelists: the Henry Miller of Tropic of Cancer, the Ernest Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises, and the Jack Kerouac of On the Road.

Thompson’s best work wasn’t entirely journalism, let alone New Journalism. His breakthrough book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1967), hews close to journalistic fact. Fear and Loathing, by contrast, bubbles over with phantasmagoric visions. His last great full-length work, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 (1973), falls somewhere in between. One observer called it the “least factual, most accurate” account of Nixon’s reelection.

Is Thompson the most distinctive voice among the greats of New Journalism? Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, was surely a better reporter. Joan Didion, of Slouching Towards Bethlehem fame, was probably a greater thinker. And Norman Mailer, who won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer for The Armies of the Night, was the more skillful writer.

But none of them tracked the slow rot of American civilization quite like Thompson. Fear and Loathing portrays a real-life Americana more harrowing than any Ralph Steadman acid nightmare. Campaign Trail ‘72 revealed the leader of the free world and most of his political rivals as fundamentally dishonest and craven — if not soulless, if not monstrous.

Thompson shaped his literary voice early on: distinctly Southern, literate, darkly humorous, biting, and not infrequently violent. He acted the part of a Major Writer long before the world had embraced him as one. He wrote condescending letters to Norman Mailer at a time when Thompson was unknown, and Mailer was famous. He called Washington Post publisher Phil Graham a “phony.”

The drink and drugs already held sway when Thompson finished his first great book, Hell’s Angels, the latter half of which he claimed to have written in four days, fueled by McDonald’s, Wild Turkey, and speed. Critics hailed him like a war correspondent for embedding with the biker gang, whose leader countered that he had found Thompson “a stone fucking coward.”

By decade’s end, Thompson had constructed a public character as vivid and vain as Didion’s — he the drug-inhaling, gun-waving, authority-bucking Aspen liberal; she the birdlike, hippie-eschewing, Goldwater-loving Sacramento conservative. Unlike Didion, however, Thompson often terrified his editors. When a friend disparaged a country song Thompson liked, Thompson pulled out his .44 Magnum, pointed it at the man’s chest, and pulled the trigger, firing a blank whose force knocked him across the room. Thompson once nearly drowned Bill Murray in a pool.

Richardson recounts Thompson’s legendary Kentucky Derby assignment, which yielded one of his greatest pieces, in loving detail. Steadman, the illustrator who became Thompson’s greatest collaborator, left his ink in a taxi and substituted lipstick borrowed from someone’s wife, a gaffe that seeded the birth of gonzo art. The Derby played out one day after the Kent State massacre, an episode for which most Americans blamed the victims.

By the end of the Kentucky assignment, a parade of excess had reduced Thompson to “a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature.” In this transformation, Richardson sees “a synecdoche for the Ugly America that decimates Southeast Asia, murders students who protest that crime, and then blames the students for their own deaths.” In “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Thompson eulogized the American Dream.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas began as a 250-word assignment for Sports Illustrated. Thompson filed 2,500 words, and SI rejected them. So, he went to Rolling Stone. Remarkably, Thompson did not immediately grasp that his Gonzo persona would become his greatest asset. He submitted the Las Vegas manuscript fearing “the permanent destruction of my credibility.”

The resulting book was about as factual as Naked Lunch, the semiautobiographical William Burroughs novel. By the time of Campaign Trail ‘72, Thompson had retreated from acid-hued impressionism to a uniquely savage brand of journalism.

What sets his book apart from the politer prose of Theodore H. White is Thompson’s mockingly subjective voice: He felt that objective journalism “was failing to meet the moment,” Richardson writes. “You had to get subjective to see Nixon clearly,” Thompson wrote, “and the shock of recognition was often painful.” And Thompson doesn’t stop with Nixon. No other campaign correspondent would have described Ed Muskie, the Democratic frontrunner, as “a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese current.”

After 1973, Thompson couldn’t enter a room without attracting a crowd. Like Sacha Baron Cohen, Uncle Duke reached a point where he could “no longer stand in the back of a room and observe,” Richardson writes. “His public persona also invited constant temptation.” Like John Belushi, Thompson couldn’t leave a room without someone offering him drugs.

The crowning irony of Thompson’s career is that much of the world still regards him as a New Journalist. Thompson saw himself as a writer, period, like Hemingway and Kerouac and Burroughs. His main character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was fictional, a decision Thompson took precisely to prevent the “grey little cocksuckers who run things” from “drawing that line between Journalism and Fiction.”

And yet, they did. “Bookstores continue to stock that book in nonfiction or journalism,” Richardson writes. College professors still teach Thompson in journalism classes.

Someone close to Thompson told me recently that she never reads books about him because they are largely populated with “people making up theories” about someone they barely knew. Savage Journey wisely focuses on the man’s work, which speaks for itself. It’s a good read.

Daniel de Visé is the author, most recently, of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King.

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