Epistle Whipped

And then, of course, there was Watergate, which Thompson describes to his agent, Lynn Nesbit, in September 1976 as the "dramatically perfect climax to what now seems like one, long, violent and incredibly active story." Indeed. Fear and Loathing in America itself reads like one long, rambunctious, crazed, and oddly touching epistolary novel, written by a brilliant nervous-wreck of a man who finds himself caught in the middle of a very American nightmare. (Thompson wanted more than anything to be his generation's F. Scott Fitzgerald.) The collection is rarely dull, and often downright hilarious, especially Thompson's endless stream of scurrilous assaults on a nickel-and-diming Jann Wenner ("Jann your most recent emission of lunatic, greed-crazed instructions to me was good for a lot of laughs here in Saigon . . . "). Most interesting, however, are the long letters in which Thompson waxes philosophical on the subject of writing and reporting; in working out his ideas in this format, he provides important insights into his wildly subjective "gonzo" style of journalism.

All of these letters—to Tom Wolfe, William Kennedy, Ralph Steadman, "Samoan Attorney" Oscar Acosta, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern—wind themselves like enervated commentary into the narrative stitching provided by the sweep of big historical events, augmenting our understanding of Thompson's development as one of this country's most imaginative and prophetic social observers/critics. While the collection as a whole could certainly benefit from a more meticulous system of annotation—the whirl of names and dates is dizzying—it nonetheless stands as an extremely valuable historical document, and a testament to Thompson's lasting importance as both a journalist and stylist.

Details

Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, Volume 2
By Hunter S. Thompson
Simon & Schuster, 730 pp., $30
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Thompson himself best sums up the book's sociological worth in a letter to Silberman near the end of the anthology: "I have never had much respect or affection for journalism, but for the past 10 years it has been both a dependable meal-ticket and a valid passport to the cockpit(s) of whatever action, crisis, movement or instant history I wanted to be a part of. . . . I managed—by using almost any kind of valid or invalid journalistic credentials I could get my hands on—to get myself personally involved in just about everything that interested me: from Berkeley to Chicago, Las Vegas to the White House, shark-fishing, street-fighting, dope-smuggling, Hell's Angels, Superbowls, local politics and a few things I'd prefer not to mention until various statutes of limitations expire."

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