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Book Review: Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson edited by Anita Thompson

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Since shortly after his suicide on February 20, 2005, there has been a steady stream of books, and even a documentary, reflecting upon the man and the myth that was writer Hunter S. Thompson. But as he believed and documented with his writing style, dubbed Gonzo journalism, the best way to cover a story, to get to the truth of it, is to be right at the center, making Hunter himself the best person to cover his own story, which he details through a series of interviews from 1967 to 2005.

While sharing at least five interviews with the previously released Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson, Ancient Gonzo Wisdom is a marvelous read for fans, almost similar to his series, The Fear and Loathing Letters.  Hunter, by way of his editor and widow Anita Thompson, presents an autobiography of sorts through his responses to questions in print, in a lecture hall, on television, and online. Anita does a great job providing footnotes to make clear what is being discussed in the conversations.

The questioners are an odd mix, mostly of fellow journalists, nowhere near as successful, who come at Hunter from different perspectives. There are fawning fans like the women of Albuquerque’s NuCity Press (1995) that bring up his “secret reputation as a pretty sexy guy” which he wasn’t aware of. Others act confrontational, figuring an interview with Hunter gives them license to act the outlaw. Judd Rose of ABC’s Primetime Live (1992), in a piece about the city of Aspen, startles Hunter, at the request of friend David Rosenthal, by opening with “who do you like better: Negroes or Jews?” Then there are the downright foolish, such as Peter Olszewski of Australia’s Loose Licks (1976). He asks Hunter to imagine taking some ultra-powerful acid that would cause him to reincarnate and then queries, “Who would you come back as?” I was stunned someone bothered to ask him if drugs should be legalized, as if there was any doubt?

Ancient Gonzo Wisdom is best taken in small doses because apparently interviewers didn’t do much research of Hunter or his previous interviews as a lot of the same ground gets covered. Multiple times, with slight variances to the story, we get his responses to subjects like why he got stomped by some Hell’s Angels, the creation of his Kentucky Derby story, the meaning of “gonzo,” working with illustrator Ralph Steadman, and his run for Sheriff of Aspen. Also, there were many questions about how much of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is true, as if that would matter. Besides, a magician never reveals his tricks.

Part of the reason repetition occurs is when the interview is not tied to Hunter flogging new material, which was unfortunately the case more and more as the years passed. In these instances, it is instead a commemoration, such as the 25th Anniversary of Rolling Stone in 1987 or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1996, both conducted by fellow RS writer P. J. O’Rourke, or the promotion of Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of FLLV.

The book covers lows as well as the highs. There are long years between the first mentions of some projects before their publication, and unfortunately others never even came out. Hunter frequently mentions part of his troubles stemmed from the notoriety he received from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. He couldn’t cover the 1976 campaign because he was a bigger star than the candidates, so he couldn’t blend in and get the same access.

Hunter talks about his portrayal in the media, complaining about becoming a caricature of the drug-addled outlaw journalist in part due to Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke character, (a very sore spot with him). But he certainly doesn’t help himself with some of his responses, especially the 1977 High Times piece, which I knew from Jay Cowan’s memoir An Insider’s View where Cowan writes about Thompson fighting with the editors to squash parts that surely would cause serious trouble for himself and Carter Administration members if printed. It’s amazing to read what got kept because it still sounds scandalous when he refers to all the coke freaks and drug users that worked the 1976 campaigns.

However, it’s apparent Hunter is purposely playing a role at times, knowing the persona will help sell books and garner speaking engagements, which are both much easier ways of making money than competing with his previous great triumphs. When challenged by an attendee of his 1977 University of Colorado (Boulder) Lecture about a response he gave to an earlier magazine interview, Hunter cut him off with, “Why do you believe everything you read in magazines, you must be crazy.”

So while you shouldn’t believe all of Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, it does provide a very good portrait of the man and his work. To paraphrase Hunter, “Buy the book. Enjoy the read.”

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • Greg Barbrick

    Nice review. As a modern day writer, I can only compare him to Bukowski, whose life became the story more than his actual writing did.

    It’s funny because as his writing diminished, his legend only grew. Kind of sad as well. Thanks for the tip on the Jay Cowan book, it is one I will be seeking out.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Thanks, Greg

  • http://wilsonknut.wordpress,com Wilson Knut

    Good review. I’ve been a Thompson fan for some time. The documentary also touches on the “role” he felt he had to play once he found success. Interesting stuff about the ’76 campaign.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Thanks, WK. I don’t know how much he actually had to play it. Sure, it’s the role some liked to see him in, but from all I have read I believe it was easier and also lucrative. Why put in the hard work and possible disappoint of competing with yourself when just showing up wasted paid the bills and had little perceived downside?