Here’s what it’s like to start reading Hunter S. Thompson again after a few years: bittersweet.
A long time ago, far, far away, I began reading Thompson more or less chronologically. You would probably presume that I started with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, because that’s generally where most people started with him–and you’d be right–or half right, anyway. Technically, I started reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas first, but set it down after a few chapters and picked up and read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 completely before resuming Las Vegas back up. Why? It was that weird time in the early 2000s when Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation had just come out, and college students, away from home for the first time in the fall of 2001, were going bananas over the Gonzo spirit in part as a way to deal with the cruel realities not just of the outside world, but of life in America, as well. It was escapism, for sure, but it also enkindled something in certain young people’s spirits that helped them process the grief of loss and the growing fear that their country was headed toward war. Just through osmosis, I’d pretty much heard the Las Vegas story already, so Campaign Trail ’72 it was. Over time, as I went through his books, I built up a sizable collection until the only books of his I was missing were his most recent.
I’ve reassembled my collection digitally, because shipping an entire oeuvre overseas is cumbersome and is just about as expensive as buying the whole thing over again, and have completed it by adding the few books I was missing and hadn’t read yet. Appropriately, I’m starting now with the stuff he published when I was first discovering him–Hey Rube! and onward. And to be honest, it’s a little strange.
It’s no secret that Thompson laughed at the idea of inherent journalistic objectivity. While he may have been factually correct in his writings, he also made no particular effort to hide his or others’ emotions toward those facts. Blending the psychological and spiritual into the story was a tactic to get at the truth, a laudable goal, now that people seem to be generating their own sets of facts, depending on what they believe. But by the time Thompson was writing Hey Rube! and others, he wasn’t out marauding across the country and getting his head kicked in by Hell’s Angels. As we reach the end of the line, the scales seem to shift, now heavier on emotion, opinion, and collected experience than on field notes and direct contact with the major players in his pieces. He seems more content in these later works to rant and spin yarns than to really get into the meat of things. Maybe that changes after Hey Rube!, but I’m not there yet.
That isn’t to say that there is no more truth to be had, and that the writing is no longer good. There is truth, and it is good. But reading it is a constant reminder of the transition most of us have gone or will go through: the days of striding confidently into the mountains of sex, violence, and weirdness that the world has to offer and coming out enlightened, eventually withering into the settled days of couch surfing and semi-private masturbation. Fear and Loathing.