Down, Gonzo


There are not too many would-be literary types who would open a friendly letter to a fellow would-be literary type: "Dear Tom, You worthless scumsucking bastard." But then there are not too many would-be literary types like the father of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson - and his lively correspondence with New Journalism guru Tom Wolfe is but one of the many such episodes which litter this second of three planned collections of his letters.

Of those three planned collections, this period - which covers 1968-76 - could be expected to provide strong material. It was during this time that Thompson finally achieved the fame he so desired, courtesy of his work in the then bible of counter-culture, Roll- ing Stone, and through his books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

Perhaps it would be timely to provide a primer for those for whom the name Hunter S. Thompson rings no bells. Back in those heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when concepts like Freak Power were taken seriously and young people swelled with idealism, there were two clear sides - established society and those outside it. The latter included a loose coalition of hippies, yippies, anti-war protesters and students.

Rolling Stone began as an underground paper and quickly prospered as it became the voice of the counter-culture. It addressed politics, society, music, drugs - the young lifestyle - with a kind of practical irreverence that made it essential reading. And Hunter S. Thompson was the most irreverent, the most untamed, the most hilarious, the most incisive; in fact simply the most, period. His colourful pieces, along with the inspired gothic illustrations of Ralph Steadman, defined the time of drug-addled political paranoia, flaky half-baked notions and a counter-culture growing in confidence by the day. His work became known as Gonzo journalism, which could be defined as writing in which the writer becomes the central figure in whatever dramas unfold.

Reading through his back pages, all 800-plus pages of his letters, it is easy to be nostalgic for a time when the battle-lines seemed so clear and simple. It is also easy to be seduced by HST's gun-toting use of vivid, violent language and the manner in which he employs it - when he gets into his stride the avalanche of invective is a joy to behold. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that while HST's life and impecunious times in Woody Creek, Aspen, Colorado, hold a limited fascination, and that beneath the character who inspired Doonesbury's Duke there lies a man who cared deeply for his family, these letters tell us more about HST's navel-gazing rather than revealing any great observations on the changing society around him. It would seem HST's greatest fan is himself. What other journalist would keep carbon copies of all his letters?

That said, Thompson remains one of the great iconoclasts of his time, and also one of the great journalistic adventurers and stylists. His influence on a generation of writers has been immense, and there clearly is a fountain of goodwill and respect for him. But these letters reveal no great hidden depths and the degree of entertainment delivered is poor relative to the volume of pages.

Joe Breen is an Irish Times journalist