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Hunter S. Thompson:
The Father of Fake News, Part 2

[1]

Hunter S. Thompson during his time in the Air Force.

3,360 words

Part 2 of 7 (Part 1 here [2], Part 3 here [3])

2. What is Gonzo? — High White Notes

“It has finally come home to me that I am not going to be either the Fitzgerald or the Hemingway of this generation . . . I am going to be the Thompson of this generation, and that makes me more nervous than anything else I can think of.”

Wills continues outlining Thompson’s life in great, and usually intriguing, detail, teasing out at each step the additions to and mutations of what would become Gonzo. While the fan, or even those only interested in learning a bit about someone their dad always talked about, should plunge in themselves, I’m going to move from the life to the work and provide — for you, The Reader — what might be called, and indeed Wills does call, The Elements of Gonzo.

Vocabulary

“I’m a word freak. I like words. I’ve always compared writing to music. That’s the way I feel about good paragraphs. When it really works, it’s like music.”

The most basic element of Gonzo are the words, as even the most casual reader will quickly pick up on; Thompson’s unique vocabulary of unusual words that are repeated almost obsessively throughout his writings, whether journalism, letters, or novels.[1] [4]

Any sample of Gonzo writing will contain at least two or three instances of words like “cheap,” “greed,” “thieves,” “hustlers,” “quacks,” “geek,” “bastinado,” “waterhead,” “atavistic,” “swinish,” “doomed,” or phrases like “banshee screaming” or “gimp mentalities.”

He would take two words and slam them together into an “ugly, offensive new term” such as “king-hell,” “hellbroth, or “greedhead.” Even ordinary words would be capitalized if significant, — “Fear” or “Wisdom” — although “by the end of his career he was capitalizing totally at random.”[2] [5]

Syntax

Building on that, Thompson would often employ not only strong adjectives — a trait developed in his violent sportswriting days — but double them up, as in “cruel and shallow money trench” (notice the violent, vivid “trench” rather than the expected “pit”); he also doubled up nouns, as in the famous “fear and loathing,” often using an ampersand (like capitalization, another habit that became excessive over time):

The phrase “monument to,” and even certain patterns … would repeat themselves later, like: “My decision to quit the Killy story came suddenly,” which is very similar to “The decision to flee came suddenly,” a line from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Syntax would be manipulated to modulate the reader through an article that might continue as many as five occasions where Thompson simply “wander[s] off into imagined scenes.” A “sudden, ungrammatical sentence beginning a new paragraph” would signal the end of a crazed fantasy and a return to the supposed subject: “Indeed. He was right.”[3] [6] Or he would “carefully [use] verb tenses to switch between present and imagined future, employing the present participle, sometimes without a subject, . . . to merge the real and the imagined.”

Techniques

These often-jarring fantasy sequences (which Wills interestingly compares to Burroughs’ “routines”) are one of the most characteristic of Thompson’s techniques for conveying his sense of what’s true as opposed to the mere recording of supposed “facts” a la conventional, supposedly “objective” journalism:[4] [7]

Like William S. Burroughs, he could concoct almost unimaginable scenes and present the grisliest details with a dry, black humor. The image of a nine-pound leech on his spine, quietly sucking blood until he thrashes about, trying to get it off, is the sort of scene that Thompson was born to write.[5] [8]

[9]

You can buy James J. O’Meara’s Passing the Buck: Coleman Francis & Other Cinematic Metaphysicians here [10].

Another, related technique he developed into a permanent feature was the invention of what Wills calls personae or what I might call doppelgängers or doubles.[6] [11] These could be real persons — usually distorted in some way, which often led to some angry reactions from the unwitting subject — or pure inventions, like Raoul Duke or Dr. Gonzo.

In this way, Thompson could fabricate supposed “quotes” and either use them as straight men (or on a couple occasions, women) who react to Thompson’s wild antics or incompetence (see below), or to whom he could attribute such bad behavior, absolving himself.[7] [12]

As Wills notes, this is related to the main problem he had with writing actual fiction: an inability to create believable characters, rather than these two-dimensional mouthpieces:[8] [13]

Certainly, this is a weak point in The Rum Diary and almost all of Thompson’s fiction. His best works were the ones in which the characters already existed and he just had to describe them rather than create them, or when he attempted completely absurd fantasy that relied more on comic archetypes than realistic characters.

It was a big step into Gonzo when Thompson realized he could not just fabricate quotes but then attribute them to fabricated characters — all in the service of conveying a “higher truth,” of course. Tom Wolfe may have pioneered “The New Journalism” and Mailer and Capote may have pioneered the “non-fiction novel,” but Thompson had his own one-man genre of mostly-fictional non-fiction — although some spoilsport might point out that this self-referential notion, seemingly either a paradox or a redundancy, amounted to, well, just fiction; or in some lights, full-bore lying.[9] [14]

Motifs

In fact, Thompson even created a recurring persona for himself: the outsider, the loner, in search of the story but almost always failing to find it, or even to write anything at all; this became a frequent motif, starting as far back as his Air Force days: a leitmotif, if you will. “It is an image that would come to define Hunter S. Thompson — the unprepared outsider embarking upon a comic misadventure.”

Making the reporter part of the story was a typical New Journalism technique, but by making himself a lovable failure and fuck-up, Thompson rendered himself both invisible in the story and sympathetic to the reader.

A related motif is deadline pressure, as the incompetent “Thompson” tries to lash together an acceptable story as the “Mojo wire” (an early portable fax machine) whines maniacally. Thompson found he could use this to create tension even though the reader knows how it ends, since the story is there in front of him:[10] [15]

The constant references to deadline pressure work as a means of pulling the reader into the story, but when repeated too often they lose their power. It feels like a student’s report on a book he has not actually read.

Yet another related motif is Thompson gradually becoming what he came to study; sometimes as a surprising, or horrifying, climax, as in the Kentucky Derby piece, or, as in the Las Vegas articles, where “Raoul Duke” and his Samoan attorney already embody or exceed the vices of the city which Thompson intends to reveal to the reader.[11] [16]

Another aspect of Thompson as Outsider[12] [17] involves his contempt for actual journalists: “in almost all of his writing, he manages to find space to attack the press.” For one of many examples, here’s my favorite, from his masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a performance or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.

Another motif is a “conspiratorial” tone or aside,[13] [18] a “wink to the reader who is left feeling that they have some insider information” on the topic of the story, as well as his overall rambling style.

Wills finds all these motifs in a long article with a long title: “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’76: Third-Rate Romance, Low-Rent Rendezvous” (Rolling Stone, June 3, 1976):

It begins with an unusual, made-up story about a rogue, Floridian dog castrator called Castrato. It is an amusing, disturbing, and thoroughly creative tale, which uses Thompson’s late friend, Lionel Olay, as the source for some funny remarks.[14] [19]

Thompson’s conspiratorial tone, seemingly subversive admissions, and in-the-moment rambling[15] [20] serve to bring the reader closer to the story, increasing the sense of immediacy felt.

So, is all this in the service of journalism — of a non-masturbatory sort, of course — or fiction? It’s no surprise that Thompson created such a chimerical genre. He had planned on being a novelist, found himself working as a journalist, but relied on Hemingway to provide an example of how one could move from the one to the other.

[21]

You can buy James O’Meara’s End of an Era here [22].

Unfortunately, Hemingway also provided Thompson with the notion that journalists could use fictional techniques to get across “truths” that they lacked the facts — the famous “who, what, when, where, why and how” — to actually establish. When Thompson proved unable to make the transition to straight fiction — mainly because of his inability to create characters — he continued to hammer away at journalism with his “Gonzo” methods.[16] [23]

In the process, Thompson did create work that, whatever its flaws as journalism — as we’ll examine later — deserves to be looked at with the tools of literary criticism. Wills, and the book, are at their best when he pulls up from this micro-analysis of the Elements of Gonzo and goes all lit crit; and appropriately the best example is his remarkable dissection of Thompson’s most famous passage, the “Wave” speech from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant . . .

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning . . .

And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.

Thompson’s greatest literary influence was Fitzgerald — to the extent that he would retype The Great Gatsby over and over “just to get the feeling of writing those words”[17] [24] — and Wills asserts that “Thompson’s wave can be compared to another of the twentieth century’s most enduring literary images: Fitzgerald’s green light.”[18] [25] Hold on to your seats:

The rhythm of both passages is unmistakably similar. They begin with several sentences of varying length, setting the scene. Then they develop into far longer compound-complex sentences, layering details and ideas in multiple clauses, before finally breaking into shorter fragments, divided by odd punctuation. Both Thompson and Fitzgerald use em dashes and aposiopesis in their penultimate paragraphs, and their antepenultimate paragraphs are marked by a jumbled variety of different sentence types. It is an ellipsis for both passages that marks the breaking of a misguided sense of hope . . .

Both passages conclude with final paragraphs beginning with the word “So” and featuring a hypothetical person looking west, into the past. Thompson’s gazes at a “high water mark” where a wave “broke and rolled back” while Fitzgerald’s is “borne back” despite struggling “against the current,” the flow of water in each case a metaphor for cultural progression.

That’s the big picture, but what about the details? Wills zooms in on the penultimate lines, showing that like a fractal image, we find the same “prose . . . as carefully polished (at times) as any poet”:

The structure of these lines is remarkably similar. Both first sentences begin with a statement (of eight syllables), followed by clause that gives a definition. In that second clause, although there are a different number of syllables, the word stress pattern is essentially the same, with six content words: sense/inevitable/victory/forces/old/evil; orgastic/future/year/year/recedes/before. What follows is a negative statement (“not in…”/ “it eluded . . .”) followed by statements that may as well have been directly paraphrased: “we didn’t need that”/ “that’s no matter.” These are less similar in a structural sense, but nonetheless thematically related. These short clauses build a sense of hope that is about to be dashed going into the final paragraph . . . The main difference is that Thompson’s final sentence is far longer, whereas Fitzgerald’s stops rather abruptly — a fittingly jarring end to the story.[19] [26]

Not content with this, Wills counts “the number of syllables Thompson used per sentence,” graphs them, and reveals that the length of the sentences actually produces the image of a wave, one that “peaks during his description of the cultural heyday to which his metaphor refers.”

Nor was prose like this a one-off or fluke:

The “wave passage” may well be Thompson at his finest, but a quick look through his best works shows that this particular rhythm was not isolated . . . When he wanted, Thompson could write in this captivating manner and, as I have demonstrated, he likely took it from Fitzgerald. It is most commonly used at the end of a text, or at the end of a section within a larger piece of writing, to deliver an emotional gut-punch. It is usually used in a wistful, nostalgic sense, with twists and turns that lead us to his insightful final thought.

What he also “took from Fitzgerald” was what Fitzgerald calls “High White Notes”:

When he talked about “high white notes,” he primarily meant passages in a piece of writing that were, like Fitzgerald said, of “unparalleled brightness and magnificence.”

This signified that they possessed a musical quality that transcended merely functional language and induced the same sort of ecstatic response that people received from a rousing piece of music.

His aims were surprisingly modest for a man who often boasted about his literary talent. He believed that even great writing did not necessarily have to be flawless; rather, there was more honor in hitting those “high white notes” that Fitzgerald had mentioned in his short story, “Basil and Cleopatra.”

This was a sacred goal and those bits of writing that possessed this quality were treated almost with a worshipper’s reverence. When he wrote something, he was happier to know that it had a few sentences of truly great writing than had he written a quite good article from start to finish.

He sought these moments throughout his career and found them often during his most productive years.

It seems a noble concept, perhaps reminiscent of Schopenhauer’s aesthetic theory or its instantiation in Wagner’s later works. But it had a disastrous effect on Thompson’s career and work: first, he was convinced that “a few sentences of truly great writing” were enough, though interspersed in a long, otherwise badly — or barely — written article, and seemed genuinely puzzled when editors and readers were of a different opinion. And second, he came to think that “the high white note was a matter of blending fact and fiction in just the perfect ratio,” giving him further justification for Hemingway’s notion of substituting fabrication for journalism.

*  *  *

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Notes

[1] [29] For example, “Thompson often become obsessed with certain words (‘doomed,’ ‘atavistic,’ etc.) and in 1958 his preferred word was ‘myopia’ or ‘myopic.’ He included this in many of his letters from that year.”

[2] [30] “Fear” and “Wisdom” had special meaning for Thompson (we’ll meet “Wisdom” in a bit). He also tended to give words his own meaning; Right from the start, I was puzzled by the dust jacket copy for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which mentioned “neo-pertinent information,” until I realized he liked to use “neo” to mean “quasi.” Like Rupert in Hitchcock’s Rope, he liked to “chose his words for sound rather than for meaning.”

[3] [31] “I readily skip the transitions between things because they nearly always come under the heading of commonplaces.” — Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (Minoela, N.Y.: Dover, 2012), p. 28.

[4] [32] “Although he seldom mentioned Burroughs, one can easily see the influence of Naked Lunch in his writing from the sixties onwards. Burroughs’ disturbing ‘routines’ morphed into Thompson’s oddball flights of fancy — sudden rushes of violent but hilarious action and dialogue that went very much over the heads of most readers.”

[5] [33] The leech appears in the opening paragraphs of “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl” (Rolling Stone, February 1974), which, like much of his work — per a suggestion from Jann Wenner to “write about his surroundings” in order to overcome his increasing bouts of writer’s block — opens in his hotel room.

[6] [34] I’ve frequently referenced such character-doubling in my film reviews, collected in  Passing the Buck: Coleman Francis and Other Cinematic Metaphysicians [35] (Colac, Victoria, Australia: Manticore Press, 2021)  as well as in essays on the TV series Mad Men, collected in  End of an Era: Mad Men and the Ordeal of Civility [22] (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015), and continued in later essays on Counter-Currents.

[7] [36] As noted above, even as a teenager he loved to frame his friends and strangers for his own pranks.

[8] [37] “Most of his writing was like William S. Burroughs’ in that it presented characters that may undergo sudden changes but do not evolve as a logical result of the events depicted. They are, instead, archetypes frozen in time.”

[9] [38] A reviewer disagrees [39]: “Wills also overstates Thompson’s originality. . . . By the time Thompson embraced so-called New Journalism, men like Talese, Breslin, and Tom Wolfe had been practicing it for years.”

[10] [40] Similarly, the weird fiction of Lovecraft and other “pulp” writers often employs the same kind of suspension of disbelief, often carried to the point of ending a tale with an ellipse or an “argh!” as the doomed narrator struggles to finish his account before the ghouls break in. See, for example, Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark.”

[11] [41] This relates to Thompson’s more fundamental attempt to become a great writer by imitation, which we will explore later by comparing his method to Neville’s; and also links him to Lovecraft, as we will also see later on.

[12] [42] We’ll soon notice the influence of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider on Thompson’s self-image.

[13] [43] Wills calls it a tone four times, an aside three times, and once, a “wink.”

[14] [44] Dead men can’t dispute your quotations.

[15] [45] “I just reread that Castrato business, and it strikes me that I am probably just one or two twisted tangents away from terminal fusing of the brain circuits.”

[16] [46] When all you have is a hammer (or as Thompson might say, a “million-pound shithammer”), everything looks like a nail. Ironically, though, the sock puppet he created, Raoul Duke, would become so real he eclipsed Thompson himself, as we’ll see below.

[17] [47] A very Neville thing to do, as we’ll see below.

[18] [48] See The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner, 2018), pp. 179-80. As that authoritative online source, Schmoop, says [49]: “We hate to think about the amount of ink that’s been spilled writing about the green light in Gatsby. This is a grade-A, prime-cut symbol: the ‘single green light’ on Daisy’s dock that Gatsby gazes wistfully at from his own house across the water represents the ‘unattainable dream,’ the ‘dream [that] must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it’ . . . Okay, you’re right: it’s not quite that simple. The green light also represents the hazy future, the future that is forever elusive, as Nick claims in the last page of the novel: ‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run farther, stretch out our arms farther. . . .’ But if the green light represents Gatsby’s dream of Daisy [50], in the past, then how does it represent the future, as well? Is the future always tied to our dreams of the past?”

[19] [51] At least two YouTube “reaction” videos to this scene in Terry Gilliam’s film version [52] include something along the lines of “Wow, I wasn’t expecting poetry.”