With the recent release of The Rum Diary film, and another literary compendium, Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson, the legendary journalist is once again making headlines as reviewers scramble to evaluate these additions to his literary legacy.
The Rum Diary (the book) is actually quite good, written by the twenty-two year old, and relatively sober, Thompson as he struggled to find his voice as a novelist. He admitted in a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose that journalism was just a way to pay the bills while he tried to write the great American novel. The Rum Diary was the product of these efforts, as well as the unpublished Prince Jellyfish, although an excerpt of it can be found in Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream.
The film, The Rum Diary, was also a pleasant surprise. It is no Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and has a minimum of drug-induced hallucinations. However, it is gritty, sweaty, and very, very funny, and retains a high enough level of booze and cigarette consumption to remind us that it is vintage Thompson. Johnny Depp is superb as Paul Kemp, and Amber Heard, who plays Chenault is stunning, as usual, and effortlessly captures the restless, reckless entitlement of a pampered moll. If you don’t know who she is, at the beginning of Zombieland, she gets bludgeoned to death with a toilet tank lid. The point, though, is that the film captures the spirit of the novel, even though it is a fairly unfaithful adaptation.
Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone, edited by Thompson’s on-and-off-again editor, Jann Wenner, contains pretty much everything that Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone. Although much of it has already been published elsewhere, Matt Labash of the Wall Street Journal points out that this compendium “turns down the noise so we can once again hear the music.”
While this has become something of a trope in the evaluation of Dr. Thompson’s life’s work, there is a ring of truth to the statement. Indeed, the documentaries on Thompson generally focus on his penchant for massive handguns, explosions, and prolific drug use. While the quality of Thompson’s writing declined inarguably towards the end of his life, the flashes of brilliance make the entirety of his work worth reading. In my opinion, his entry into his “Hey Rube” column for ESPN, Fear and Loathing in America, published immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 is brilliant, and one of the absolute must-read commentaries that was published immediately after the attacks.
However, even in this brilliance, the game-changing prose that made Hunter S. Thompson a legend has had an unfortunate side effect. Ironically, the fact that he is stylistically inimitable has produced a legion of copycat writers. Indeed, I suspect that Thompson is singlehandedly responsible for more J-school applicants than all other writers combined. I suspect the reasons for this are intimately linked to both the Dr. Gonzo and Hunter S. Thompson personas.
On one hand, there is no doubt that half of Thompson’s legacy is a cadre of young journalists that believe they can fuel themselves with bottles of whiskey and cartons of cigarettes. There is a serious tradition of hard boozing and heavy smoking among the heavyweight writers today, and in particular, among those that young writers aspire to be: Christopher Hitchens admitted in 2006 that he could smoke his way through three packs of cigarettes a day, and drank enough to “kill or stun the average mule.” P.J. O’Rourke, author of “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink” is a classic cigar smoking Republican. However, Thompson outdid all of his contemporaries, and marketed his own brand of excess as he did so.
And so, now that Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is a legitimate Halloween costume, we can probably safely conclude that when walking into the editorial offices of The Gateway at the University of Alberta, the desks piled high with empty liquor bottles are probably the result of half-witted attempts to emulate American’s hardest living journalist.
And I suspect this is because the way that Dr. Thompson lived provides an attractive alternative narrative on how a journalist actually lives and works. The budding writer in his first journalism job is far more likely to feature racing around town at all hours of the day to cover local news, or sitting in a cubicle phoning officials for a scoop or quote than it is to involve packing a Jeep Cherokee with dynamite and blowing it up.
The second reason for emulation is that Thompson’s writing was pure, vitriolic, inspiring and unique. It was, and remains, damn good, in many ways. His first book, Hell’s Angels is ballsy, and his essays (such as “The Battle of Aspen”) showcase a unique insight into the counterculture movement in 1960s America. The political commentary in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, ’72 is where Thompson’s political voice is born, as he ponders the mechanics of presidential campaigns (“Jesus…how low do you have to stoop in this country to be President”) and the youth vote (“All they want to do these days is lie around on waterbeds and smoke that goddamn marrywanna…”).
Implicit in this voice is its inimitability. The fact that the writing could stand on the page was the result of Thompson’s long cultivated public branding. Nobody else could have written in an obituary that Richard Nixon was a “swine and a jabbering dupe of a president” who “needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning.” He consistently referred to himself as a politics junkie, an addict, and it was this frenetic attitude towards American political discourse than enabled the entire operation.
It is a characteristic of many of the legendary American journalists: William F. Buckley, Jr. was also inimitable, and the reproduction of his voice makes one sound like an insufferable ass. Indeed, though I enjoy what Conrad Black has to say, he seems to me a weak photocopy of Buckley, and it sure shows. It is worth remembering, then, that the legends in American literature became so through their unique voice.
In Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, 72 Thompson wrote “when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand.”
Yep, that sounds about right. So as you start penning school applications and writing essays for your classes remember that quote.
You haven’t “Been There,” so don’t try and sound like you have.