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Critical Review by Louis Menand
SOURCE: "Life in the Stone Age," in The New Republic, Vol. 204, Nos. 1 and 2, January 7 and 14, 1991, pp. 38-44.
In the following excerpt, Menand reviews Thompson's Songs of the Doomed, charging that the author is still living in the counterculture of the 1970s.
After the Altamont concert disaster in December 1969, when a fan was killed a few feet from the stage where The Rolling Stones were performing, psychedelia lost its middle-class appeal. More unpleasant news followed in 1970—the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, the Manson Family trials, the deaths by overdose of famous rock stars. And even more quickly than it had sprung up, the media fascination with the counterculture evaporated.
But the counterculture, stripped of its idealism and its sexiness, lingered on. If you drove down the main street of any small city in America in the 1970s, you saw clusters of teenagers standing around, wearing long hair and bell-bottom jeans, listening to Led Zeppelin, furtively getting stoned. This was the massive middle of the baby-boom generation, the remnant of the counterculture—a remnant that was much bigger than the original, but in which the media had lost interest. These people were not activists or dropouts. They had very few public voices. One of them was Hunter Thompson's.
Thompson came to Rolling Stone in 1970, an important moment in the magazine's history. [Jann] Wenner had fired Greil Marcus, a music critic with an American studies degree who was then his reviews editor, for running a negative review of an inferior Dylan album called Self-Portrait (it is one of Wenner's rules that the big stars must always be hyped); and most of the politically minded members of the staff quit after the "Get Back" episode following Kent State. There were financial problems as well. By the end of 1970, Rolling Stone was a quarter million dollars in debt.
Hugh Hefner, who is to testosterone what Wenner is to rock 'n' roll, offered to buy the magazine, but Wenner found other angels. Among them were record companies. Columbia Records and Elektra were delighted to advance their friends at Rolling Stone a year's worth of advertising; Rolling Stone and the record companies, after all, were in the same business.
The next problem was to sell magazines. (Rolling Stone relies heavily on newsstand sales, since its readers are not the sort of people who can be counted on to fill out subscription renewal forms with any degree of regularity.) Here Wenner had two strokes of good fortune. The first was a long interview he obtained with John Lennon, the first time most people had ever heard a Beatle not caring to sound lovable. It sold many magazines. The second was the arrival of Thompson.
Thompson was a well-traveled, free-spirited hack whose résumé included a stint as sports editor of The Jersey Shore Herald, a job as general reporter for The Middletown Daily News, freelance work out of Puerto Rico for a bowling magazine, a period as South American correspondent for The National Observer (during which he suffered some permanent hair loss from stress and drugs), an assignment covering the 1968 presidential campaign for Pageant, two unpublished Great American novels, a little male modeling, and a narrowly unsuccessful campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado.
Thompson had actually been discovered for the alternative press by Warren Hinckle, the editor of Ramparts, which is when his writing acquired the label "gonzo journalism." But Thompson was interested in Rolling Stone because he thought it would help his nascent political career by giving him access to people who had no interest in politics (a good indication of the magazine's political reputation in 1970). A year after signing on, he produced the articles that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a tour de force of pop faction about five days on drugs in Las Vegas. It sold many copies of Rolling Stone, and it gave Thompson fortune, celebrity, and a permanent running headline.
Many people who were not young read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and thought it a witty piece of writing. Wolfe included two selections from Thompson's work in his 1973 anthology The New Journalism (everyone else but Wolfe got only one entry); and this has given Thompson the standing of a man identified with an academically recognized Literary Movement. But Thompson is essentially a writer for teenage boys. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is The Catcher in the Rye on speed: the lost weekend of a disaffected loser who tells his story in a mordant style that is addictively appealing to adolescents with a deep and unspecified grudge against life.
Once you understand the target, the thematics make sense. Sexual prowess is part of the Thompson mystique, for example, but the world of his writing is almost entirely male, and sex itself is rarely more than a vague, adult horror; for sex beyond mere bravado is a subject that makes most teenage boys nervous. A vast supply of drugs of every genre and description accompany the Thompson persona and maintain him in a permanent state of dementia; but the drugs have all the verisimilitude of a 14-year-old's secret spy kit: these grown-ups don't realize that the person they are talking to is completely out of his mind on dangerous chemicals. The fear and loathing in Thompson's writing is simply Holden Caulfield's fear of growing up—a fear that, in Thompson's case as in Salinger's, is particularly convincing to younger readers because it so clearly runs from the books straight back to the writer himself.
After the Las Vegas book, Rolling Stone assigned Thompson to cover the 1972 presidential campaign. His reports were collected in (inevitably) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. The series begins with some astute analysis of primary strategy and the like, salted with irreverent descriptions of the candidates and many personal anecdotes. Thompson's unusual relation to the facts—one piece, which caused a brief stir, reported that Edmund Muskie was addicted to an obscure African drug called Ibogaine—made him the object of some media attention of his own. But eventually the reporting breaks down, and Thompson is reduced at the end of his book to quoting at length from the dispatches of his Rolling Stone colleague Timothy Crouse (whose own book about the campaign, The Boys on the Bus, became an acclaimed exposé of political journalism).
Since 1972 Thompson has devoted his career to the maintenance of his legend, and his reporting has mostly been reporting about the Thompson style of reporting, which consists largely of unsuccessful attempts to cover his subjects, and of drug misadventures. He doesn't need to report, of course, because reporting is not what his audience cares about. They care about the escapades of their hero, which are recounted obsessively in his writing, and some of which were the basis for an unwatchable movie called Where the Buffalo Roam, released in 1980 and starring Bill Murray.
Thompson left Rolling Stone around 1975 and eventually became a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. He has been repackaging his pieces in chronicle form regularly since 1979. Songs of the Doomed is the third collection, and most of the recent material concerns the author's arrest earlier this year on drug possession and sexual assault charges in Colorado. Having made a fortune portraying himself as a champion consumer of controlled substances, Thompson naturally took the position that the drugs found in his house must have been left there by someone else. (The charges, unfortunately for a writer badly in need of fresh adventures, were dismissed.)
Thompson, in short, is practically the only person in America still living circa 1972. His persona enacts a counterculture sensibility with the utopianism completely leached out. There are no romantic notions about peace and love in his writing, only adolescent paranoia and violence. There is no romanticization of the street, either. Everything disappoints him—an occasionally engaging attitude that is also, of course, romanticism of the very purest sort. Thompson is the eternally bitter elegist of a moment that never really was, and that is why he is the ideal writer for a generation that has always felt that it arrived onstage about five minutes after the audience walked out.
This section contains 1,358 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)