A pale imitation of the real Thompson

January 17, 1993|By Robert Chow | Robert Chow,Orange County Register


Paul Perry.

Thunder's Mouth Press.

264 pages. $22.95. Writing a biography about Hunter S. Thompson seems like an exercise in redundancy, considering that everything written by the inventor of "gonzo journalism" has been part of a fragmented autobiography.

But that hasn't prevented several books on the inspiration for the Doonesbury comic strip character, Duke, from crowding their way onto bookstore shelves.

The latest to come along is "Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson," an unauthorized biography by Paul Perry, formerly an editor with Running magazine.

But don't expect to learn anything new about Mr. Thompson from this biography. It simply promotes the lore Mr. Thompson himself has worked so hard to perpetuate.

Indeed, the term "unauthorized biography" is gratuitous. There are few scandalous details about Mr. Thompson's life that he hasn't already written about himself. He's not someone who has tried to cover his tracks.

What valuable information Mr. Perry provides comes in the opening chapter describing Mr. Thompson's childhood in Louisville, Ky. Even as a youth, Mr. Thompson displayed the traits that have made him famous. He was a juvenile delinquent with a knack for writing.

While in high school, Thompson penned an essay that would become the anthem he has lived his life by -- "Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived, or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?" Mr. Thompson obviously chose the former.

Mr. Perry credits Bill Cardoza for coining the expression "gonzo journalism," which Mr. Thompson later embraced to describe his method of reporting. In 1970, Mr. Cardoza, then an editor with the Boston Globe, used the term to describe a Hunter Thompson article about a drug-crazed weekend at the Kentucky Derby.

Gonzo refers to reporters injecting themselves into the stories to the point that they in a sense become the story. In Mr. Thompson's case, the method typically involves consuming massive quantities of drugs and alcohol before mocking some hallowed part of American culture, whether it be the Kentucky Derby or the presidential electoral process.

The bulk of this biography, however, simply charts Mr. Thompson's career as South American correspondent for the now-defunct National Observer and as a staff writer for Rolling Stone magazine.

But the tales of inhuman drug consumption, irreverent behavior and gonzo journalism outings are better related by the master himself than heard secondhand from Mr. Perry. A reading of "The Great Shark Hunt," an anthology of Mr. Thompson's work, and his books, "Hells Angels" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," provide a better glimpse into his life and what he is all about.

At his best, Mr. Thompson served as a maniacal clown whose antics and writings shed a new perspective on the traditions underlying American culture.

But substance abuse, fame and modest talent finally caught up with Mr. Thompson. By 1973, he had become a drunken buffoon on the college lecture circuit. Today, he resides in Aspen, Colo., where he continues to make a living as a magazine contributor living on past glory.

?3 A sad enough ending for a gonzo kind of a life.

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