Epistle Whipped


Fear and Loathing in America, volume 2 of Hunter S. Thompson’s collected letters, might just as well have been titled “The Brutal Education of a Native Son.” The years covered here (1968-76) find the most talented and outrageous of America’s New Journalists in a perpetual state of panic, struggling like hell to alchemize his psychic turmoil into a suitably bent prose, an avalanche of word fury that would accurately render the hallucinogenic weirdness of the country’s social/political scene. And despite nagging uncertainties, Thompson’s tremendous ambition was always pushing him to take on bigger and bigger subject matter. In the collection’s earliest letters, for instance, one discovers that it was far more than the spontaneous, serendipitous agony of journalistic circumstance that led a drug-addled Thompson to slapdash his finest work—the implosive and insanely sane “gonzo” masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

At first, Thompson is genuinely terrified by the prospect of a sophomore-type slump following the moderate success of Hell’s Angels, his close-to-the-bone, firsthand account of time spent among the notorious gang of bikers and bullies; he flails around in desperation, searching for a hold on his next unwieldy book project, a sort of unanchored, telescoping epic about “The Death of the American Dream.” Though he knows he’s just the writer for such a grandiose undertaking, Thompson is incapable of locating a hinge upon which to hang his apocalyptic screed. Hence there’s a very pleasurable kind of suspense in reading the reams of querulous, queasy letters he rifles off (always between four and seven in the morning, ripped to the gills on speed) to his publisher or his agent, bemoaning endless struggles and a frustrating lack of focus. “The angst has become malignant,” he confesses to Jim Silberman of Random House. “I feel it growing in me, choking the energy . . . there is a weird, helpless kind of rage in not understanding how I can write so many pages and still not get anything written.”

Such epistolary litanies afford an electrifying glimpse of a surprisingly vulnerable artist at the outermost reaches of despair, which becomes all the more poignant when he begins, ever so gradually, to close in on a potential solution. “Maybe the only way to get at the vitals of the American Dream is to come at it crab-wise,” he writes to Silberman, ” . . . focus down close on something specific, then slam the enemy in the balls from some wholly unexpected vantage point.”

And still, before this nut-busting quasi-ambush could take the literary world by storm, Thompson would receive a pair of crucial de facto lessons in national politics. The first lesson, what Thompson refers to in a letter to Lawrence Turman of 20th Century Fox as “The Cauterization of the Duped,” occurred at the disastrous ’68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Facing “the National Guard’s bayonet picket fence” on Michigan Avenue, Thompson tried to cross the line after flashing his press pass to a cop, “and I was still looking at the snarl on his face when I felt my stomach punched back against my spine; he used his club like a spear, holding it with both hands and hitting me right above the belt.”

Thompson was certainly no stranger to physical assault—he received a legendary ass-stomping from the Hell’s Angels—but this state-sponsored gut-punch was symbolic as well as personal: The fascist worm had turned, and all Thompson’s worst fears had come suddenly, devastatingly true. It’s after this definitive moment that Thompson’s writing becomes at once more pessimistic and more urgent, as he fights to wrest a survivalist’s wisdom from his growing despondency. In an incisive 1969 letter to Ron Dorfman of the Chicago Journalism Review, Thompson discusses the notion of “the media provoking violence,” and it’s clear from the clarity and intensity of his writing that the deeper significance of the DNC debacle was not lost on him. “Should the news media deal with this kind of violence? I think so. A middle-class voyeur who gets his kicks from watching Mannix or Marshal Dillon punch people around should be given the chance to watch a real beating—a terrified man, like himself, screaming and crying for help with blood in his eyes and not able to breathe.”

Thompson’s second collision with political reality, then, was as redemptive as the first was disheartening—to wit, his wily spearheading of the campaign to elect “hippy lawyer” Joe Edwards as mayor of Aspen in 1969. Though, in the final tally, his “Freak Power” campaign was defeated by a single vote, Thompson found his faith in the system miraculously revitalized. “The joke in all this is that I suddenly see a bedrock validity in the American Dream,” he wrote (again to Silberman). “The Joe Edwards campaign was a straight exercise in Jeffersonian Democracy . . . [and] a wilder trip, for me, than any acid I’ve ever eaten.” The drug comparison is apt: From this point forward, Thompson’s penchant for political gamesmanship would become a full-blown addiction, compelling his failed bid for sheriff of Aspen in the next election (on the “mescaline ticket”), and then driving him to compose his most enduring work of renegade political reportage, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.

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.

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.”