The First Person, Steroid-Enhanced

Hari Kunzru

  • The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
    Bloomsbury, 204 pp, £16.99, October 1998, ISBN 0 07 475416 5
  • The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters. Vol. I by Hunter S. Thompson, edited by Douglas Brinkley
    Bloomsbury, 720 pp, £9.99, July 1998, ISBN 0 7475 3619 8

For Tom Wolfe, the New Journalism was defined by the appearance of all kinds of literary devices in non-fiction writing, but chiefly by an unwillingness to adopt the traditional journalistic tone of polite neutrality. He made the business of voice appear as if it was simply a matter of style, a confident new generation trying on a linguistic version of one of his own well-cut suits. While this surface stylishness characterises Wolfe’s own voice, with its caustic social observations and bravura displays of writerly technique, for other writers the chance to speak in an unmediated first person fulfilled a more urgent necessity. It allowed Michael Herr, on assignment in Vietnam for Esquire and Rolling Stone, to write about his own terror and confusion as he drifted through the war zone, and it allowed Joan Didion, in The White Album, to weave details of her anxious upscale-Californian life into a startling account of the collapse of Sixties idealism.

No one took the voice of the journalist further away from ‘neutral background’ (or seemed less able to stop himself doing it) than Hunter S. Thompson. Even at the start of his career, he was no believer in journalistic neutrality. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1937, Thompson was often in trouble with the police, spending his high-school graduation day in Louisville jail as part of a six-week sentence for robbery. A contribution to his school magazine railed against ‘security’, eulogising, in tones apparently inspired by Marlon Brando in The Wild One, the ideal of ‘true courage: the kind which enables men to face the unknown regardless of the consequences’. That outlaw pose adopted in his teenage conflicts with Southern authority has never been dropped. In ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, an influential essay written in 1970, he described a day at the races – the centrepiece of white Kentucky’s social calendar – which he spent gleefully spreading the rumour of a Black Panther-inspired riot.

After school he joined the Air Force, and edited the sports, section of his base newspaper. He complained to a girlfriend of the ‘blood-curdling routine’ and promised that ‘just as soon as I sell a novel or two, I will buy a plot of land and ... fence the whole thing off and operate a small-scale nudist colony where I can have nightly orgies and not be bothered by the world and its idiots.’ The US Air Force was determined not to let him have it all his own way. A 1957 personnel report noted that ‘in spite of frequent counselling’ the young airman-journalist ‘leans so strongly to critical editorialising that it was necessary to require that all his writing be thoroughly edited before release’.

After the Air Force, Thompson travelled around America, sometimes writing for newspapers, often broke, always obsessively working on The Rum Diary, the novel he hoped would make his name. Ironically his fictional ambitions were gradually absorbed into the journalism and The Rum Diary has remained unpublished until now, almost forty years after its composition. A hard-bitten story of love, journalism and heavy drinking, it never strays too far from Thompson’s own life. The pull of the real was already exerting itself On the 22-year-old writer.

Though he was filing reasonably conventional copy for his various employers, his tendency to attract trouble, usually involving some combination of trouble’s classic elements – drugs, alcohol, cars, guns and women – meant that his presence often sparked off events far more interesting than those he was supposed to be covering. Later in his career the ‘story’ as independent entity was to disappear almost entirely from his work, which became a fractured series of tales about Hunter (mad, bad and dangerous) and his behaviour (inspired, erratic, paranoid). His ability to articulate the undercurrent of ‘fear and loathing’ running through America ultimately led to his adoption as a kind of soothsaying holy fool for the counter-culture.

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