News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

To the memory of talented crank, Hunter S. Thompson.
This is another recycled screed; this one written in 2004-03-06.
A review of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
By Biff Cappuccino

Hunter S. Thompson first published his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a series of articles in Rolling Stone under the pseudonym of Raoul Duke. Raoul, the Hispanic lowlife, and Duke, John Wayne's nickname, are an apt combo as the book is an alloy of sleaze and the sort of shallow white chutzpah/cool that was popular back in an era of liberated thinking whose sterile staging ground was the hard-core political correctness of the 1950's and 1960's. After the dope decade, disco, punk, and AIDS, we got wiser as a culture and generated a more informed, compassionate and intellectual PC which has been at our throats ever since.

Part of what makes this book work is Thompson's ability to lay out simple, clear images, most of which are subversive and unsympathetic to the perennial American uplift. They appeal because they're familiar and because so much of white-collar America, like white-collar Taiwan and China, retains blue-collar values at heart.

For example: "a lot of cops are good vicious Catholics", "fat gold credit risk", and "a savage journey to the heart of the American dream." But this quickly moves on to other themes like: "the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals", "extremely dangerous drugs", "rotten stuff", "nothing is more helpless or irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge." A recurring deflection of blame. It's not Hunter's fault. Now that the drugs are taken, what can you do? Nothing. The book is full of this bogus fatalism that comes across as comedy, though the joke was on this reader who guesses now that Hunter was perfectly sincere. Drugs are the bad guys, the perps. Hunter is an escape artist whose cover is playing the victim.

Thompson's style is imitative of Henry Miller, containing a similar bravado, machismo, dramatic portrayal of self and others. It has the same hustling overdrive to portray the mundane as crucial; the pedestrian as heroic; the insignificant as overwhelming. However, Hunter reminds us in timely fashion that he's on drugs. Henry never comes up with an excuse for his stream-of-consciousness rambling. And unlike Miller, Thompson doesn't forget the audience has a memory and knows when it's being fed the same line for a second time, a third, or even a fourth. When Hunter runs out of material, he ends the book. He fills up space with quality illustrations, runs up the size of the print to fill even more space, and then gets out while the going is good at page 204.

In addition to just hyping up the subject, he also has an outstanding ability to create striking scenes with very simple words. But sometimes those scenes are unbelievable. For example, when he claims he howled at LA traffic with impunity. People just aren't that docile. Or when he explains why he backs up a car too quickly. He writes: "No harm done," I said. "I always test a transmission that way. The rear end. For stress factors."

Stress factors? Is that really what he said? The first page opens with an excellent scene which includes: My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. Again there's an odd choice of words: to facilitate. My impression is that when Hunter wanted to tell a fib, his conscience betrayed him and made his English go queerly formal and school-like.

But he also achieves, in outstanding fashion, the Mark Twain trick (ex: Huckleberry Finn) of putting complex ideas into accessible English.

For example: ... when I went to a doctor and described my normal daily intake of booze, drugs and poison he told me to come back when the sweating stopped. That would be the danger point, he said -- a sign that my body's desperately overworked flushing mechanism had broken down completely. "I have great faith in the natural processes," he said. "But in your case... well... I find no precedent. We'll just have to wait and see, then work with what's left."

Poison... flushing mechanism... natural processes... work with what's left. This looks easy, but it's not. It's a sign of literary virtuosity to be sure.

Jorge Luis Borges in "On Oscar Wilde": If I'm not mistaken, [Wilde] was much more than a sort of Irish Moreas; he was a man of the 18th century who occasionally condescended to games of symbolism. Like Gibbon, like Johnson, like Voltaire, he was a wit; a wit who was also right. ... Perfection has injured him; his work is so harmonious that he can seem inevitable and even banal.

It's not that Oscar Wilde or Hunter S. Thompson were wits who were also right, but that both were right and softened their harsh discoveries with wit. Over the years they had both seen clearly and thus unavoidably developed entirely unorthodox worldviews. To the mainstream, these worldviews seem familiar and yet exotic. Their authors -- deft, insolvent, and eager to please -- issued them to a timid public in the congenial guise of parody. But Wilde and Thompson, like so many other literary jesters, meant pretty much what they wrote.

And though I think neither Wilde nor Thompson offered perfection, the statement that (for each) "his work is so harmonious that he can seem inevitable and even banal," is right on the money.

Thompson's bluster, the larger-than-life theater, the overwrought verbiage, but also the often almost miraculously succinct hit-it-right-on-the-nail poignancy that produces splashes of emotion and kick-starts streams of thought, this produces great satisfaction at times.

It also brought to mind Daniel Boorstin's The Americans: The Democratic Experience. It's this echo of pre-WWII -- the age of Henry Miller; of politicians who won votes by refusing to wear socks; of social activists who campaigned to ban tobacco cigarettes (but not pipes) on the theory that the next step was opium followed by the gallows. This retro-flavor gives this book much of its bizarre pungency. It's this which also insulates it from criticism. It's so weirdly unfamiliar that it often seems like satire. How are you to judge it? There's the sneaking suspicion that if you don't get the joke, then the joke is on you. This gives the book air, frees it from the tight restrictions of analysis and makes it better than it is.

And this echo has been updated and modernized into a vocabulary of citified stuffed-shirts, as opposed to rural boosters, and angst, not anger. It’s the tempest-in-a-tea-pot faux-rebellion of an egghead paranoiac. But it also demonstrates how free and giddily irresponsible and unwound life, ideas, and speech can be when one is free of the paralyzing grasp of extended families, geriatric moral traditions, uptight faiths, and so on.

George Orwell: [he] is not consciously writing a hymn to liberty. Primarily he is interested in 'character', in the fantastic, almost lunatic variations which human nature is capable of when economic pressure and tradition are both removed from it... they are as different from modern men, and from one another, as the gargoyles of a medieval cathedral. They could develop their strange and sometimes sinister individuality because of the lack of any outside pressure. The State hardly existed, the churches were weak and spoke with many voices... If you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west…

This is Orwell describing Mark Twain. How little some things have changed.

Thompson's style seems particularly American too. My impression of English writers is a tradition of precision, reserve and remove, from Wolfe to Orwell to Amis; whereas America's tradition is more forthright and pugnacious. Perhaps it's a Celtic outgrowth. Perhaps it's peculiarly Irish or Scottish. Perhaps its stress upon self-promotion, sound-bytes, imprecision and excess ended up inspiring more false roads of promise, more bullshit artists, and more literary disasters than it was worth. Either way, from the beginning initiated by Crocket, if indeed this was the beginning, one moves forward through history to the brag and bluster of Mark Twain, Henry Mencken, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and (the recently reformed) P.J. O'Rourke.

Does this have something to do with the non-university-educated backgrounds of so many successful American writers? Is it connected with the private longing of the bulk of North American academics to be the martial and sexual analogues of defectively imagined truck drivers and cattlemen? Perhaps. Probably.

The book launches with a bang in a brilliantly effective two paragraph road scene (probably cribbed for the best segment of the Oliver Stone/James Woods film Salvador), rolls through a mostly interesting series of vignettes (except for chapter nine, which should’ve have been edited out), and terminates with a brief rant on the changing drug times and a parting scam with Thompson hustling pills at a pharmacy with a license stamped Doctor of Divinities.

The book ends with the line: I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger… A Man on the Move, and sick enough to be totally confident.

That’s the real Hunter S. Thompson, right there. That’s who he thought he was, felt he was, and wished he could always be. And he could only achieve it, and be a real American as he saw it, when stoned out of his tree. To be a hero, he had to be a deviant. To be a somebody, he had to retreat from almost everybody. That’s the comedy. And, of course, the irony, the pathos, and the tragedy.

I'd recommend this book to nearly any reader, but I bought it for its reference value. It contains reams of compressed sagacity for the reference of writers-in-training like myself. It’s a genuine literary canon. Enjoy.

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