Hunter S. Thompson: The Father of Fake News, Part 7James J. O'Meara
7. Final Wisdom: The Truth Was Not in Him!
“We’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo to the end!”
CIA Supervisor: Jesus Fucking Christ. What did we learn, Palmer?
Palmer: I don’t know, sir.
CIA Supervisor: I don’t fucking know, either. I guess we learned not to do it again. I’m fucked if I know what we did.
Palmer: Yes, sir, it’s hard to say . . .
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
At nearly 500 pages, Wills’ book is unlikely to appeal to the casual reader, although it does have the advantage of synthesizing the contents of the dozens of biographies, collections of letters, and so on that have grown barnacle-like around the legend of Dr. Gonzo — all of which Wills seems to have absorbed, along with everything Thompson ever wrote or published.
For someone who’s specialized in research on the Beats, Wills is a rather dull writer, prone to lazy phrases such as “pull no punches” (twice: Once in the Introduction, describing his own writing, then 440 pages later, describing Thompson’s obituary on Nixon) or how Thompson “threw” this or that into his writing, including of course himself.
Wills shares his subject’s habit of fixating on a word and using it over and over, but while Thompson used interesting or arresting words like “atavistic” or “greedhead,” Wills obsesses with words like “hilarious”; something is hilarious, usually Thompson or his writing, 28 times. Sure, it’s accurate, but do we need to hear that something in or around Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is hilarious eight times in 25 pages (twice on page 256, and again on page 257, at which point I admit I did laugh myself).
Speaking of repetition, there is a noticeable amount of redundancy, which ought to have been noticed in the editing process (unless this is what remains of an original trove). Already on page 20, Airman Thompson is writing “reports of wrestling professional wrestling matches” for the base newspaper. He bookends the quote above about Thompson’s attitude toward fact and fiction by first saying it “set forth his ideas in clearer terms than anywhere else” and concludes it with “this was perhaps his clearest and most concise explanation.”
On one page, we meet “a young writer called Timothy Crouse,” and on the next we meet “a talented young journalist called Timothy Crouse”; the repetition also brings to mind the solecism of someone being “called” rather than named. On the next page he breaks down Thompson’s output during the 1972 Nixon campaign by month, with “two [articles] for July, and then one for each of the remaining months except July, when he wrote two pieces.” One begins to expect a visit from the Department of Redundancy Department.
In what is perhaps an instance of the Mandela Effect, I noticed him using the phrase “knew fine well” and assumed it was a typo for “knew full well.” After several repeats — ultimately he uses it five times — I fed it into Duck Duck Go and found people using it all over the web; in fact, some people were using both forms in the same article, apparently at random (Wills never uses “full well”). This was news to me.
To be fair, Wills can write engagingly, and occasionally made me laugh with his deadpan descriptions of Thompson’s utter shamelessness:
There is plenty of wisdom; however, it is obvious that everything he has learned about running, Hawaii, and fishing has basically come from drunken conversations with barflies.
So, what is it, the Final Wisdom here? Wills fails in two important aspects. First, though admirably willing to present his hero’s bad behavior, he is ultimately unwilling or unable to come out and admit the obvious conclusion: Thompson was not just the “mischievous child” that Wills admits to, but a very bad hombre, deeply disturbed and likely borderline insane; had he not discovered literature and had a unique writing talent, he probably would gone on to have deserved Will Graham’s verdict on the Tooth Fairy:
Jack Crawford: What are you, sympathizing with this guy?
Will Graham: Absolutely . . . My heart bleeds for him, as a child . . . At the same time, as an adult, he’s irredeemable. He [presents fiction as fact] to pursue trivial fantasies . . . As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks . . .
Rather Gonzo, that last bit; and a use of a gun that Thompson would approve of.
Secondly, and more culpably, he takes Thompson at his own self-evaluation as some kind of patron saint of journalism, a bold critic of a failing profession rather than the man who delivered the coup de grace that led to its final, flailing failure.
Of course, only a Mrs. Grundy would condemn an artist’s work because of his lousy personality; as Will Graham goes on to say:
Do you think that’s a contradiction, Jack? Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?
Wills is to be commended for digging deep to find the truth behind Thompson’s self-mythology, and for performing the kind of deep reading of Thompson’s entire output that enables him to produce insightful analyses that succeed in making the case for Thompson’s work as great American literature.
But it firmly belongs in the tradition of American humor rather than “serious” literature along with Mark Twain, though Thompson never managed to break through to his own Huckleberry Finn, to say nothing of Moby Dick:
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.
He remains analogous to what Colin Wilson called minor composers: adept at one thing or another, and possibly favorites of ours, but whose work we must admit never achieves the broad sweep of a Bach or Beethoven.
Wills early on, while Thompson is still struggling to write a novel in Puerto Rico, gets it right:
Writing was for Thompson an extension of the “street theater” of his youth. The elaborate pranks and shocking behavior of his teenage years had evolved into letters, articles, and later books that tore up social conventions and made people confused, repulsed, or delirious with laughter.
How would Thompson react today? Thompson had too much Old Left baggage — love of guns and motorcycles, nostalgia for the Jeffersonian past, casual “just joking” racism, treatment of women intolerable in the era of #MeToo, and just plain contrariness — to fit in with the Woke class.
Assuming he could still get work in today’s PC media, how would Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 2020 have gone down, if he had been able to recover his mojo?
Trump seems like a natural target for Thompson’s hatred of the pseudo-elites’ decadent antics, a la “Kentucky Derby” or “A Dog Took My Place” — or would his anarchic streak make him delight in Trump as another Boo-Hoo disrupting the Muskie/Jeb train? Would he view the Magapedes as more racist saps misled by a new George Wallace, or would his own nostalgia for the Old Weird America lead him to support a campaign to “Make America Great Gatsby Again”?
And how would Biden fare? Given Thompson’s Jeffersonian hatred of both parties, would he regard Biden with equal disdain as another Humphry, a warmongering ex-Vice President, and an appropriate symbol of the visibly decrepit system? Or would his senile antics make even Thompson’s satire obsolete? And perhaps Thompson, whose worldview and prose style gelled in the assassinations and anti-war protests of the sixties, would have, like Biden and the rest of the sixties cohort, “evolved” into a fan of “humanitarian intervention,” becoming, as Thompson so often did, what they hated?
Baby boomer politics were forged in the antiwar protests of the 1960’s. The end phase of baby boomer politics will now be determined by the pro-war policies of the boomers. The people who cut their teeth shouting “baby killer” at men in uniform are now baby killers demanding that young men put on a uniform and fight a pointless war of choice. The baby boomer generation of politicians have become the thing they hated.
Thompson’s skill at lying in service of the truth — The Wisdom — would make him a popular guest on the legacy media:
The smartypants act has often come packaged in outrageous errors. Whether it’s MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid suggesting horse paste eaters clogging emergency rooms in Oklahoma be stuck at the back of the line for leaving “gunshot victims” untreated (there were no gunshot victims, the story turned out to be bunk), or Goldman analyst-turned-CNN-anchor Erin Burnett joining imperious colleagues Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, Bakari Sellers, Jim Acosta, and industry mascot Brian Stelter in blasting Joe Rogan for taking a drug “intended for livestock” (Rogan’s human ivermectin dose was prescribed by a doctor), or even Joe Biden announcing he was mandating vaccines for health care workers so you can have “certainty” they can’t “spread it to you” (they can still spread it to you), the endless campaign of maladroit scolding almost seems designed to make fence-sitters refuse the shot out of spite, confusion, or both.
It’s not funny anymore, Hunter.
Bad craziness, late night here in Stars Hollow, in the Year of Our Lord 2022: Two thousand years of madness and revenge. Mortuis nihil nisi bonum, and all that. Perhaps Thompson’s epitaph for “Dr. Gonzo” himself applies as well or better to “Dr.” Thompson:
There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.
* * *
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 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, p. 11.
 Thompson amused himself by writing an assistant from Rolling Stone into his polo story: “The magazine sent me an assistant. He said, ‘My name is Tobias [Perse], but my friends call me Queerbait.’” They fought over this for four months, until Perse finally had it cut right before press time.
 Wills should have taken Thompson’s advice to sport writers: “Even a sports editor, for instance, might notice something wrong with a lead that said: ‘The precision-jackhammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Washington Redskins today by stomping and hammering with one precise jackthrust after another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint precision passes into the flat and numerous hammer-jack stomps around both ends . . .’ Right. And there was the genius of Grantland Rice. He carried a pocket thesaurus, so that ‘The thundering hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen’ never echoed more than once in the same paragraph, and the ‘Granite-grey sky’ in his lead was a ‘cold dark dusk’ in the last lonely line of his heart-rending, nerve-ripping stories . . .” (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72).
 More recently, I was delighted to see my colleague Mark Gullick use it for the first time on Counter-Currents: “Death of a Ladies Man: The Rise and Fall of Boris Johnson.”
 I toy with the idea that Beethoven was not a major artist, due to his inability to write an opera: Fidelio is overshadowed by the three overtures he tried to write for it, each rejected because his instrumental music made the opera unnecessary. The finale of the Ninth is a noble failure; his disciple, Wagner, took up the challenge and succeeded, yet again, arguably, he is not a major artist since his purely instrumental works are forgettable. Compare this with the mastery of the entire field of music exhibited by Bach, Mozart, and even Haydn.
 “He campaigns like a rock star with a thundering, gut level appeal to rise up and smash all the ‘pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington’ who’d been fucking them over for so long,” though he had “never bothered to understand the problems.” While pushing the usual Leftist line — they use racism to divide and distract us from real issues — Thompson gives a fairly informed account of how you need to understand the various white tribes who settled — or were transported in chains — to the living Hell of 1600s Georgia to grasp Wallace’s appeal: “By British standards the climate in places like South Carolina and Georgia was close to Hell on Earth: swamps, alligators, mosquitoes, tropical disease . . . all this plus a boiling sun all day long and no way to make money unless you had a land grant from the King . . .” See Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, July. “He goes into imagined scenes in the histories of England and the Deep South to explain the archaic — or as Thompson would say, ‘atavistic’ — nature of George Wallace.” These include a hilarious scene of a Wallace ancestor becoming a straw boss whipping transported white convicts.
 Matt Taibbi, “Vaccine Aristocrats Strike Again.” Compare James Kunstler: “In keeping with the principles of mass formation psychosis, the maliciously insane people in charge of our nation’s affairs will expect you to swallow ever-greater absurdities to maintain their control (and protect themselves). But we’re way beyond the ‘women-with-penises’ stage of the mind-fuckery program. Nobody with a functioning brain believes that bullshit anymore — except the people who run the California prison system. The crisis of the vaccinated is coming and there won’t be any hiding it. Anyway, nobody expects actual news reporting out of the legacy media.” That “anyway” is a Thompson touch, along with the contempt for practicing “journalists” and law enforcement; also phrases like “maliciously insane” or “functioning brain” and obscene compounds like “mind-fuckery”; as for “our nation’s affairs,” Thompson was in charge of the “National Affairs Desk” at Rolling Stone. Kunstler then takes on the nouveau gauche with Thompsonian fantasy and Final Wisdom: “Only this time the Left will be pro-war and the Party of Chaos will send out its ragtag army of Antifa trannies to make the street protests bloodier. It will be seen for what it is: the ruling regime’s war on its own people. And it will be overcome.” In general, though, Kunstler keeps his fiction and non-fiction in separate folders.
 And again the specter of Dunleavy arises: “Dubliner John Boland, book critic and poet, has difficulty placing Donleavy in the literary landscape. ‘I don’t really regard him as an Irish writer . . . I don’t really regard him as an American writer either. He’s a curious hybrid. He’s actually kind of a one-off.’”
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