Wednesday, February 29, 2012

book review: Gonzo Republic Hunter S. Thompson's America by William Stephenson

"Thompson was very well read and extremely articulate in print, but he was not a philosopher or even an intellectual. He was, first and foremost a journalist, who preferred to seek the Dream and report on the quest rather than to theorize about it. He never sat down to formulate his ideas systematically in the abstract; instead, he composed everything in response to some experience."

In a way it's easy to label Hunter S. Thompson's life's work as a quest to pin down the reality of the American Dream. From the moment he received the assignment to write a book about it he was struggling but that struggle to define something that almost defies explanation became something that shaped his writing.

Add to that some of the other things he became famous for - developing Gonzo journalism where he was to a large extent the story and living the events rather than observing them impartially - along with his legendary drug use and you end up with someone who becomes a persona and even ends up merchandising that image.

But this bvook shows there was more to Thompson than just an image. Indeed he seems to have struggled to come to terms with it himself moaning about the way it pigeon-holed his ability to be seen in a different light.

His politics and beliefs were shaped by a particular view of America and what it should stand for. There was no place in his American dream for those who murdered presidents and no place for presidents who disgraced their office. His hatred of Nixon stayed with him until the end.

But he was not just interested in politics and the sub-groups that existed in their own bubbles, like the Hells Angels he first wrote about or the hippies he briefly lived alongside. He was also drawn to gambling and sports and his knowledge of those provided employment and an income at points in the second half of his career.

For those that have read any Thompson there are helpful insights here into the way he was making points with exagerrated scenes of violence or drug use. You end up appreciating more episodes that at first glance could be dismissed as fanciful.

But where perhaps this book could have gone further is to try and explain the cult of Thompson that seems to have grown even more after his death. The flame is carried high by Johnny Depp but there are others who also see his work as a beacon in the darkness of an America that has lost its way.

Perhaps more on those developments would have explained even more not just the way that Thompson saw and was shaped by America but the way he had also left his dent on the nations consciousness.

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