Hunter S. Thompson, the eternal outlaw

January 19, 2003|By Stephen R. Proctor | By Stephen R. Proctor,Sun Staff

Kingdom of Fear, by Hunter S. Thompson, Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $25

The trouble with Hunter S. Thompson's latest book is that he never decided what he was writing. Is it a memoir by the fabled gonzo journalist? Is it the story of a born outlaw's lifelong battle with The System? Is it a social critic's take on America's psyche post-Sept. 11?

Kingdom of Fear tries to be all these at once, and the result is a book that feels as if it's drained Thompson's notebook of everything that hadn't hitherto found its way into print.

Thompson's gonzo style consists of a narrative that regularly veers off on tangents or is interrupted by memos, letters, news articles or interviews with the author. It always teeters on the brink of disarray.

But in this book he sends it over the edge by using a device apparently intended to tie together the book's principal elements -- Thompson's life as a journalist and his identity as an outlaw.

At various intervals, he detours into the story of his celebrated clash with a former porn film star -- a fracas that led to a trial in which drug, sex and explosives charges against him were thrown out.

The goal, it seems to me, is to make the point that despite the outlandish lifestyle for which he is famous -- a passion for drugs, booze, sex, speed and weaponry -- Thompson is one outlaw who has triumphed over The System.

The result, unfortunately, is confusion that seriously weakens the book --- along with some passages in which Thompson's references are so abstruse that readers are apt to get lost.

But when reading Thompson it's best not to dwell on particulars. Just strap in and enjoy the ride, because sooner or later he'll deliver the electric, outrageous prose that has won him richly deserved acclaim.

In this book, there are small gems like Thompson's encounter with a mountain lion that jumps into his Cadillac, his road test of the super-fast Ducati 900SP motorcycle, and his surprise birthday visit to Jack Nicholson's house.

And there are longer tales that rival anything Thompson did in his glory days as a gonzo journalist, liberally mixing fact and fiction to arrive at something closer to the truth than either one.

Chief among these is "Fear and Loathing in Elko," the story of Thompson's crazed (and presumably fanciful) encounter with Clarence Thomas, then a judge but now a Supreme Court justice.

It begins as Thompson is speeding down a darkened, rain-soaked highway in Nevada -- en route to visit friends attending a conference for sex-film distributors -- and plows into a herd of sheep.

He quickly discovers that Thomas, in a white Cadillac with two women who appear to be hookers, slammed into the herd first -- and thus begins an adventure that spirals hilariously out of control.

In the end, what is most important about this book is not whether it hangs together or whether Thompson is as sharp now as he was when he burst onto the literary scene in the 1960s.

It is that Thompson, like his journalistic predecessor H.L. Mencken, stands in permanent opposition to the powers that be. In this era of post-9 / 11 flag-waving, that is a trait to be cherished.

As one of Thompson's friends put it: "Hunter is necessary, now more than ever Hunter is necessary."

Stephen R. Proctor is the Sun's deputy managing editor for features and sports. He has worked for The Sun for 22 years, and for his entire adult life has been a serious student of the history of this newspaper and The Sun's most famous writer, H.L. Mencken.

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