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Book Review: Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson, Edited by Jann S. Wenner

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Rolling Stone again honors what is arguably the most important writer to grace its pages with Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson. A partial history of both his life and the United States plays out for the reader.

Issue #67 was a landmark as it featured Thompson’s first article for the magazine. “The Battle of Aspen: Freak Power in the Rockies” told the tale of Aspen, Colorado’s 1969 mayoral election and Joe Edwards’ campaign tactic of appealing to the “freaks, heads, fun-hogs, and weird night-people.” Thompson had already received notoriety for his reporting in Hell’s Angels and his Gonzo journalism piece “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” but it was when paired with Rolling Stone that both reached the peak of their careers. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas first appeared as a two-part series, after being rejected by Sports Illustrated, and so did Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, which was collected and released as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.  George McGovern’s campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz claimed it was “the least factual, most accurate account.” 

After Watergate and without Nixon to kick around anymore, something changed for Thompson. He blew an assignment when he and friend/illustrator Ralph Steadman were sent to Zaire to cover the Muhammed Ali-George Foreman fight, better known as the Rumble in the Jungle. Thompson thought the fight would be a waste of time so he sold the tickets and spent his time in the hotel pool. Trips to Saigon as the Vietnam War ended and Grenada also resulted in nothing. He couldn’t cover the 1976 campaign in the same manner as before because he was a bigger star than the candidates, so he couldn’t blend in and get the same access.

In “Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision” from the BBC’s Omnibus he stated, “I’m leading a normal life and right along side me there is this myth, and it is growing and mushrooming and getting more and more warped. When I get invited to, say, speak at universities, I’m not sure if they are inviting Duke or Thompson. I’m not sure who to be.” He chose the easy money in giving people what they wanted by playing the role of Hunter the Gonzo Journalist rather than putting in the hard work to top himself as a writer, which was going to be tough considering how successful he had been. Plus, there was also the impact his drug and alcohol intake must have had.

Articles became infrequent towards the end of his tenure as a quick glance over the table of contents reveals. After his 1978 profile of Ali in “Last Tango in Vegas: Fear and Loathing in the Near Room and the Far Room,” his next article in the book is his 1983 coverage of the infamous Pulitzer divorce in “A Dog took My Place.” Then it’s eight years before “The Taming of the Shrew,” a non review of the Nancy Reagan biography by Kitty Kelley, which Hunter found to be “an ugly mean little package that made me feel cheap for just reading it or even holding the thing in my hands.” During the ’90s, he wrote obituaries for Timothy Leary, William Burroughs, and of course, his nemesis Richard Nixon, “an American monster” as he referred to him. His final story for the magazine was “The Fun Hog in the Passing Lane” where he endorsed John Kerry for President in 2004 since “four more years of Bush will be like four more years of syphilis.”

Paul Scanlon, Managing Editor during Thompson’s early days, reveals four articles are not included, because “they simply weren’t up to par,” though it would have been nice to know what they were for completists. And what is included has received some editing, such as the removal of a lengthy diatribe about the Oakland Raiders from “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl, “which had nothing to do with the contest itself.” As a bonus, the book includes correspondence between Thompson and publisher Jann Wenner.

When getting to the end of Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone, a sense of melancholy may over take the reader, as it did me, due to the realization there’s no new Thompson piece coming. But what a grand collection having this work assembled together is. Unless they have all the old magazines, this is an essential book for any Thompson fan or else they shouldn’t consider themselves a Thompson fan.

Mahalo

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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

    I agree that there is a sadness to the knowledge that there will be no more of Thompson’s amazing writing for us to enjoy. At his peak, there was nobody who could touch him. Unfortunately, those days had passed long before he did though.

    I remember buying Generation of Swine in 88, and coming to the painful realization that P.J. O’Rourke had basically usurped Thompson in terms of humor and insight. What’s worse, I don’t even like P.J. O’Rourke’s stance – but the guy’s writing was closer to “classic” Thompson than what Hunter himself was doing.

    Having read most of the RS material previously I found the correspondence between Thompson and Wenner to be the best part of the book in some ways. Hilarious stuff.

    Anyway, great review.

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