Hunter Thompson: rantings by a voice from the 1960s

January 06, 1991|By CARL SESSIONS STEPP

Songs of the Doomed.

Hunter S. Thompson.


320 pages. $21.95. To complain that Hunter S. Thompson's work is self-indulgent, coy, preoccupied with violence and oblivious to distinctions between fact and fiction is not, of course, to say that it should be disregarded.

Mr. Thompson, the trailblazer of so-called gonzo journalism, must also be cheered as a robust, uninhibited voice. In an age of tiptoe reporting and mealy-mouthed commentary, his take-no-prisoners approach offers welcome insights and humor.

This collection, the third of the "gonzo papers," assembles work from the 1960s onward, stitched together by contemporary comments. Familiar themes recur: the underside of politics, the latent violence of modern culture, the dark world of drugs and mind alteration.

Despite its laudable nonconformity, Mr. Thompson's trademark fear-and-loathing style seems better suited to the pell-mell world of the 1960s. Many themes here (glorification of the drug world, objectification of women) seem worn and unreconstructed in the modern light. In the book's newer material, he fumbles for the right voice.

Yet just when you're tempted to write him off, he springs a bull's-eye piece, such as his scorching put-down of Palm Beach's filthy rich and the Pulitzer divorce trial.

His technique works somewhat like a freight train careening through the mountains. He accelerates gradually, seemingly under loose control, then lurches fearfully toward the overhang. Consider this passage:

"The very name Palm Beach . . . was coming to be associated with berserk sleaziness, a place where price tags mean nothing and the rich are always in heat, where pampered animals are openly worshiped in church and naked millionaires gnaw brassieres off the chests of their own daughters in public."

After a while, a reader loses feel for what Mr. Thompson is passing off as true and what is spilling from his fertile imagination. In a way, this is good. Mixing journalistic, literary and inventive modes helps mimic the schizophrenic and surreal nature of modern times. But eventually you find yourself wondering whether Mr. Thompson is the master of this technique or its victim,

His own thoughts echo this point.

Early on, he discusses how one "should push on into unknown worlds and plumb their meaning." His hyperbole, he explains, is "exaggerations to make a point. My concern with accuracy is on a higher level than nickels and dimes. . . ."

But, he worries, "I have destroyed all kinds of things I've been entrusted to at least be careful with."

The book concludes strangely, with what can be read as a breakdown between the author and his publisher, Mr. Thompson apparently (if this section is, as I doubt, to be relied on) abandoning and turning on the project, his editors forging ahead anyway and denouncing him as "that cruel whiskey-dumb geek."

Is this amusing or pathetic? Stimulating or maddeningly manipulative? With Mr. Thompson, you never know. That is his hold on us, and perhaps his tragic flaw.

Mr. Stepp teaches journalism at the University of Maryland and is senior editor of Washington Journalism Review.

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