Gonzo, But Not Forgotten

Copyright 1993 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
The San Francisco Chronicle



LENGTH: 1039 words

HEADLINE: Gonzo, But Not Forgotten



The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson

By E. Jean Carroll

Dutton; 341 pages; $ 25


The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson

By Paul Perry

Thunder’s Mouth; 274 pages; $ 22.95

The father of gonzo journalism, chronicler of the death of the American Dream and self-proclaimed last of the dope fiends, Hunter S. Thompson is not dead yet.

Best known for his 1970s book ”Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and immortalized as ”Uncle Duke” in the comic strip ”Doonesbury,” Thompson is now the subject of two unauthorized biographies, and still another biography is on the way.

While Emmy-nominated ”Saturday Night Live” writer E. Jean Carroll is named as author of ”Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson,” she denies responsibility for her ”sleazy, bottom-feeding project” and claims it was actually written by a Miss Laetitia Snap, an ornithologist who was kidnaped by Thompson and forced to write the book from Thompson’s cesspool.

Miss Snap chronicles Thompson’s ”miraculous existence” between chapters of her own seduction and torture. Carroll’s device is like a hilarious version of Sade’s ”Justine” and echoes her wild subject well, while framing some serious interviews with drug dealers, politicians, childhood friends and, notably, Thompson’s ex-wife. Paul Perry’s ”Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson,” though labeled ”violently unauthorized,” is actually the more traditional of the two books. While some facts overlap with Carroll’s cesspool chronicles, Perry’s smooth narrative includes intriguing information on Ken Kesey, the Hell’s Angels and Ralph Steadman, the kinetic illustrator of much of Thompson’s writings (who refused to talk to Carroll).

Both books try to separate the real Thompson from his towering myth of Supreme Outlaw Journalist. The subtle picture peeking out behind the praise shows Thompson the man as a bigoted, homophobic, wife-beating, dog-kicking, insecure, paranoid child who can’t write anymore.

They may not find him likable, but both authors acknowledge that Thompson’s daring changed the face of journalism in the early ’70s, and his wild antics and scathing political commentary continued to amuse and inform for years afterward. Carroll even swoons that he is ”the greatest stylist in the English language since Jane Austen.” But then, she was ”interviewed” by Miss Snap, who confesses to be under the influence of hallucinogens.

Hunter Stockton Thompson was born July 18, 1937, in Louisville, Ky. His insurance agent father died when Thompson was 15, and though he had always been considered a troublemaker, Thompson became even more wild. Childhood friends in Carroll’s book call him ”fearless,” ”manipulative,” ”a liar.” Thompson himself tells Carroll that he ”always felt like a Southerner. And I always felt like I was born in defeat.” While his wealthy friends got away with wild pranks, Thompson went to jail. ”The frustration of this social situation may be partly responsible for the rage and erratic behavior that seemed to permeate his being,” according to Perry. ”No matter how hard he tried, he would always be an outsider.”

Naturally, a stint in the Air Force (where he began honing his sportswriting talents) ended early, although Thompson did arrange for an honorable discharge. He left to write the Great American Novel while writing articles for various publications, and, at that time, as his ex-wife, Sandra Dawn Thompson Tarlo, tells Carroll, ”he was incredibly disciplined. Every single day he would write without fail. He probably wrote six hours a day. Faithfully. Always.”

Thompson’s dispatches weren’t entirely accurate, and his inventive streak was to become a much-loved trait in his reporting. Perry describes the infamous episode during the 1972 presidential campaign when Thompson started a rumor that Edmund Muskie was suffering from an addiction to a bogus drug called Ibogaine.

A piece on the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly introduced his gonzo style, both authors report. Panicked over a deadline, Thompson ripped pieces out of his notebook as Warren Hinckle and other editors pasted them together in whatever form they could. ”Forget all this s – – – you’ve been writing,” wrote Bill Cardoza, editor of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, ”this is pure Gonzo” — a term now defined in Webster’s as ”bizarre and unrestrained.” Soon afterward, both authors say, Thompson sealed his doom as an irreverent wild man who chugged tumblers of Wild Turkey, swallowed every drug known to man, trashed hotel rooms — and gained the respect of fellow journalists. One observer tells Carroll, ”He was allowed to tell the truth and they weren’t, so they all were fans of his.”

Perry’s narrative is the more sympathetic and cohesive portrait of Thompson as a disillusioned writer imprisoned by his own image. But there are ugly scenes as well — Thompson, according to Steadman, was ”more interested in looking for cocaine” than covering the Ali-Foreman fight (an escapade that cost Rolling Stone $ 25,000 in expenses and never resulted in a story). Perry ends on an up note with Thompson actually writing a piece for Running magazine and admitting, ”I don’t even have time to abuse myself these days.”

Carroll’s book, while laced with the bawdy and playful narrative of Miss Snap (”Reader, I believed the Doctor possessed marijuana!”), is, by virtue of its bold quote format, a raw account. Thompson’s ex-wife’s quotes becomes so painful that even she can’t continue: ”Hunter beat me. OK. Not good. OK. Next chapter.”

Neither book discredits his talent or influence in revealing his allegedly swinish behavior, and both succeed in presenting the many-layered myth of the indestructible Dr. Thompson. Whether he continues writing or not, these authors suggest, Thompson represents a kind of perpetual youth, guts and rock and roll honesty. ”As long as Hunter is around,” one childhood friend told Carroll, ”everything is okay. When Hunter dies, then we’re all old.”

GRAPHIC: PHOTO,Hunter S. Thompson, born in Kentucky, told biographer E. Jean Carroll that he ‘always felt like a Southerner. And I always felt like I was born in defeat.’, , BY ASSOCIATED PRESS

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