Hunter S Thompson was a one trick pony. He did a fairly amusing trick, but it was pretty limited. It went something like this: Get journalistic assignment to cover a political campaign. Get really wasted on as many exotic chemicals as you can lay hands to. Engage in confrontational drunk and disorderly conduct and make a nuisance of yourself. Write it all down, with some made up crap thrown in to make it extra colorful. Add some dark, broad predictions of an apocalypse, and you’ve hit literary pay dirt. Oh, and if you can shoehorn in some kind of a quote from the candidate who is the nominal subject of your diatribe, that would probably be considered good form. ["Remember Alice? This is a song about Alice."]
Boy howdy, did this approach get O-L-D with a quickness. It could be entertaining in a Rolling Stone article, but was not near enough to carry a real book. And that was in the 60s and 70s. He was still writing the same article again and again to the very end. From an ESPN column “Welcome to the Big Darkness” dated July 22, 2003:
The American nation is in the worst condition I can remember in my lifetime, and our prospects for the immediate future are even worse. I am surprised and embarrassed to be a part of the first American generation to leave the country in far worse shape than it was when we first came into it. Our highway system is crumbling, our police are dishonest, our children are poor, our vaunted Social Security, once the envy of the world, has been looted and neglected and destroyed by the same gang of ignorant greed-crazed bastards who brought us Vietnam, Afghanistan, the disastrous Gaza Strip and ignominious defeat all over the world.
The Stock Market will never come back, our Armies will never again be No. 1, and our children will drink filthy water for the rest of our lives.
The Bush family must be very proud of themselves today, but I am not. Big Darkness, soon come. Take my word for it.
Note the utter lack of actually saying anything. There’s no indication of exactly what which specific “greed-crazed bastards” have actually done to screw the pooch. Indeed, it’s an utterly generic screed with no active connection to any particular facts. He could have substituted “Nixon” for “Bush” and dated in 1970. He could have said “Clinton” and dated it in the 90s.
Essentially, Hunter Thompson was the literary precursor of punk rock. It made a pretty big splash, but there was nowhere for the purebreds’ uncut nihilism to go. The Sex Pistols knocked ‘em dead with Never Mind the Bullocks, but the rejection of all values (particularly journalism and musicianship) left them with no follow up.
The logical extension of the Sex Pistols style and worldview left them needing the suicide of Sid Vicious to legitimize their work, and give it one final shock. It was the big, final publicity stunt. Likewise, obviously, with Hunter Thompson. There’s not much place else to go after “Big Darkness, soon come.” Note that this comes out a command rather than a prediction. Where else could this end but with his brains splashed on the wall?
As amusing as Thompson could be in his prime (if you didn’t think about where it was inevitably headed), he was still intellectual junk food. You sure couldn’t use Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 as any kind of history book about the presidential campaign of 1972. There was a minimum of any kind of actual relevant facts, and there’s a good chance that he’d made half of them up anyway.
Did I mention that Thompson liked to just make crap up? McGovern campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz described Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 as “the least factual, but most accurate” account of the race. Many liberal supporters have defended Thompson likewise as expressing truth that transcended his frequent and purposeful dishonesty. Riiiiight. Is a detailed explanation of the extreme weakness of this position really necessary?
Nor did his work provide any kind of philosophical insight into “the death of the American dream.” Hunter Thompson seeing big winged bats because he’s taken too many hallucinogenic drugs does not qualify as any statement on where things went wrong in the country- unless you’re taking it as commentary on the scourge of drug abuse. It’s just fairly clever masturbation.
On the other hand, Hunter S Thompson definitely has had some good effects. Most obviously, he’s been an inspiration for a lot of young would-be writers to pick up a pen. That’s certainly to the good. Of course, the inspired college boy might take the lesson that being a great writer depends on seeing how many drugs you can take while striving for the most outrageous denunciation of The Man you can find.
Still, he was fairly innovative in the basic form of journalism with his subjective first person narrative style. Along with Tom Wolfe, Thompson was the architect of “new journalism.” Thompson made writing look like great joyous fun. There’s a fair amount to learn from Thompson, even in his failures.
Most obviously and completely, PJ O’Rourke has fully realized the promise in Thompson’s approach. He picked up the subjective first person style, including the willingness to openly state opinions and the use of his personal anecdotes in telling the story.
For one thing, O’Rourke has made far better use of the personal anecdote than Thompson. He’s mostly used them slightly more sparingly, usually in some way that actually contributes to telling the story he’s covering. O’Rourke has described some drunken escapades and drug humor, but just a little for flavoring.
O’Rourke has used a lot broader range of personal stories, generally in a relevant manner. My favorite example comes from Parliament of Whores, in which he describes how he got shoulder deep up a cow that he was helping his friend artificially inseminate. This was relevant as an introduction to the farm bill Congress was working up- and as a metaphor for how US agricultural policy worked.
This was something that HST was just generally not going to do. He wouldn’t even intend on actually exhibiting the simple discipline involved in studying the details of a farm bill. That would be too much like eating rather than drinking or smoking your vegetables.
Critically, O’Rourke has used HST’s palette in the service of actually reporting stories and communicating useful information. The humor and wild analogies and metaphors serve as the spoonful of sugar making palatable the explanation of dry but signifcant government policies.
Parliament of Whores, for example, describes the practical operations and policy initiatives of the US Congress in the 1989/90 term. These many years after reading the book, I can still spill you back his explanations about S&L regulation being left to schoolchildren and pet mice coping with people making loans to finance the farming of fur bearing trout.
Most importantly, I actually retained at least some rudimentary understanding of just how the infamous S&L debacle worked. PJ’s personalized gonzo style allowed many people to keep their eyes open long enough to actually get some reasonable explanation of what happened in these arcane but extremely expensive scandals.
In fact, Parliament of Whores could be used productively as a history book. It provides a useful account of the the congressional sausage factory, with personal opinions and wild analogies clearly delineated from the facts. It’s a classic example of what Hunter Thompson’s new journalism can accomplish, if separated from the shortcomings of the architect.