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Critical Review by Ron Rosenbaum
SOURCE: "Still Gonzo After All These Years," in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1990, pp. 7-8.
In the following review, Rosenbaum asserts that Thompson is at his best in Songs of the Doomed when he's on the road after a story, instead of writing from the sidelines of his Woody Creek home.
Saigon, May 1975. The city is about to fall to the National Liberation Front. The last American reporters left in the besieged capital are calculating when to fly out before the honorable desire to stay to the bloody end becomes merely suicidal. Meanwhile, Hunter S. Thompson has just flown in to the encircled city with $30,000 in cash taped to his body (don't ask). Only to learn he has been fired by Rolling Stone (some bitter dispute with its publisher, Jann Wenner, over a book advance) and both his medical insurance and his Telex card link to the outside world have been canceled by the magazine.
No problem. He's got a plan. He's going to convince the enemy that he's their one true friend in American journalism, that he should be the one to cover the final assault on the capital—from behind enemy lines. And so up in his room in Saigon's Hotel Continental Plaza he bangs out a "Confidential Memo to Colonel Giang Vo Don Giang," one of a number of memos, cables, fragments of memoirs and novels, and eviction notices collected in Songs of the Doomed, along with some of Mr. Thompson's best work of the past three decades.
In his memo to the Vietcong colonel Mr. Thompson tries heroically to communicate just what kind of writer he is, why he's different from other journalists. It's not an easy job.
"I trust you understand that, as a professional para-journalist, I am in the same position today that you were as a paramilitary professional about three years ago," he tells the colonel, and he offers to send him one of his classic works, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. He tells the colonel that he knows Jane Fonda. And he informs him, "I am one of the best writers currently using the English language as both a musical instrument and a political weapon."
While self-effacement has never been one of Mr. Thompson's strengths, I think he was absolutely right about how good a writer he was then. Fans across the political spectrum from Norman Mailer to Tom Wolfe and William F. Buckley Jr. have said as much in the past.
Is it still true now? Those of us who lack access to the biweekly column he wrote for The San Francisco Examiner until earlier this year (Mr. Thompson's chief outlet since his split with Rolling Stone) have had to await periodic appearances of these volumes of "The Gonzo Papers." The last one, Volume Two, cheerfully titled Generation of Swine, chiefly concerned itself with Mr. Thompson's jeremiads against the 80's.
This new volume, it should be noted, arrives under something of a cloud, if internal evidence is to be believed.
A peculiar editor's note before the final section informs us, "Our contract allowed us to go to press with whatever sections of the book we already had our hands on—despite the author's objections and bizarre motions filed by his attorneys in courts all over the country."
Reading between the lines one gathers that Mr. Thompson is planning on coming out with an entirely separate book on his recent legal ordeal and vindication—this summer a judge in Aspen, Colo., threw out charges of sexual harassment and drug and weapons possession against Mr. Thompson, which grew out of a dispute that involved a former pornographic film maker and a Jacuzzi. Mr. Thompson is now suing authorities for "malicious prosecution" and general revenge.
Evidently, Mr. Thompson did not want to skim the cream off the forthcoming book (working title: "99 Days: The Trial of Hunter S. Thompson"), but the editors wanted something from him about the celebrated case in this volume. So they have apparently chosen the dubious tactic of appending various clippings, reports and public domain documents on the case to the book, seemingly against the author's wishes.
Of course, this whole business of Mr. Thompson making "bizarre" threats against his own book—indeed the editor's note itself—could be a device concocted by the author.
He is often at his best when he deploys the apparently extraneous detritus of the journalism process as his most expressive vehicle. One of the high points of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, arguably his best book, is a section introduced by an editor's note declaring that, "in the interests of journalistic purity," the editor is presenting a "verbatim transcript" of a cassette found among Mr. Thompson's effects after he disappeared to escape Vegas debt collectors.
Of course that is the heart of the book—that ostensibly artless but suspiciously artful transcript of a conversation with a waitress in a coffee shop on Paradise Road about the precise location of the American dream.
Indeed, one of the high points of Songs of the Doomed is another alleged document, Mr. Thompson's "Secret Cable to Willie Hearst." Subject: his expenses, According to Mr. Thompson, Mr. Hearst's Examiner hasn't been paying them.
"I now list my Examiner expense bills on my 1040 form as 'uncollectible debts,'" Mr. Thompson writes. "And we now have a column that will never be written from anywhere more than 2.1 miles from the Post Office in Woody Creek," Mr. Thompson's Colorado home.
Mr. Thompson characteristically extracts a profound truth about journalism here from what might seem on the surface to be the standard expense-account memo whine. "The Old Man [William Randolph Hearst Sr.] was a monster," he writes, "but nobody ever accused him of skimming nickels and dimes off his best writers' expense accounts—and it wasn't his cheap-jack accountants who made him a legend in American journalism and the highest roller of his time."
The classic Thompson pieces in Songs of the Doomed, the kind of stories that have made him a high-rolling legend in journalism, are the ones in which he is out there on the highway running up expenses in search of emblematic weirdness, "Whooping It Up With The War Junkies in Saigon" or pursuing "Bad Craziness in Palm Beach."
But even more interesting than such successes in the book are the self-acknowledged failures: fragments of novels begun in the late 50's and early 60's, before Mr. Thompson burst onto the scene with Hell's Angels and his two Fear and Loathing books. While not a formal autobiography, the early novels, "Prince Jellyfish" and "The Rum Diary," do give us glimpses of the man behind the maniacal mask, the struggling writer before he attained sacred-monster status.
In the novel fragments we see the young former serviceman, an idealistic good ol' boy from Kentucky who reads Fitzgerald, comes to New York full of wonder hoping to make his mark in journalism by telling The Truth, finds himself rejected and scorned by cynical big-city editors, gets beaten up and disillusioned, and ends up in a kind of self-created hell as a reporter for a bowling magazine in San Juan (don't ask). There he almost self-destructs, stewing in his own bitterness before he catches on with The National Observer, the short-lived Dow Jones weekly, and his work starts getting noticed.
One thing you take away from these fragments is a sense of Hunter Thompson as far more complex and, well, sensitive than the cynical Uncle Duke caricature of him in "Doonesbury." All that rage in his work, all that fear and loathing, is the product, it seems, not of the sneering cynic but of a bitterly disillusioned idealist.
Reading Songs of the Doomed reminds us how good he was at his best, and how good he still can be when he's given the freedom—and expenses—to hit the road, rather than stewing in his own bitterness in Woody Creek.
Memo to Willie Hearst: Give this man back his expense account.
This section contains 1,309 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)