Sunday, February 9, 2003
By dark of night in the early 1980s at my old journalism college, some students moved the letters around on the faculty felt board to name Hunter S. Thompson as the new dean.
Disappointed professors talked about it for days. Elevating Thompson, the whacked-out godfather of gonzo journalism, to a lofty post was sacrilege. Today, that journalism college is Respectable. It is the Place to Be. But when I was a student, it was a tired old strumpet on the Beltway, wheezily cranking out journalists who knew more about copy-editing symbols than the actual craft. We might have been sitting in class listening, but in the dorms, we were reading Dr. Thompson.
Thompson would have been a wonderful addition to that moldy old bunch of gasbags. And if you think his time has passed, you need to visit "Kingdom of Fear," Thompson's latest exploration of the social psyche.
For the uninitiated, gonzo journalism (sometimes called New Journalism) is a manic blend of fact and fiction that some say stretches back to the early 1800s, when a New York reporter covering a fight put himself into the shoes of the boxer. For more recent examples, think Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Gay Talese.
Thompson is arguably the best-known of the genre, partly because of his prolific output of books and magazine articles, but also because of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the 1998 movie based on his book and starring Johnny Depp, with whom Thompson is still friends, or earlier, the 1980 film "Where the Buffalo Roam" with Bill Murray.
But mostly we know Thompson because we fear him. He is the snake at the garden party, the snake hopped up on chemicals, the one who's not buying it, not swallowing it whole.
This time, Thompson traces his own life, from the smart-mouthed kid in Louisville, Ky., through his brief and not-glorious stint in the Air Force, through his drug use, his career as night manager for a California porn theater, his politics, his legal ills. It's here. It's manic. And he still has some of the best political commentary around.
Written just after the terrorist attacks: "It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerrilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy. ... So get ready for it, folks. Buckle up and watch your backs at all times. That is why they call it 'Terrorism."'
On speed, as in motion: " ... a fool can ride a Ducati 900 many times, and it will always be a bloodcurdling kind of fun. That is the Curse of Speed which has plagued me all my life. I am a slave to it. On my tombstone they will carve, IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME."
On life in general: "Why is it that so many people have gone insane since the end of the American Century and the horrible Bush family was restored to power? Why is the teenage suicide rate going up? Is the President a clone? Is my car going to explode? Why does my sweetheart suddenly have all these lewd tattoos on her body?"
As Thompson would say, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Hunter S. Thompson sometimes shoots typewriters, but when he uses them to write, he's incomparable.