Screaming To Get Out

Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman:
The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume One
By Hunter S. Thompson
Edited by Douglas Brinkley
Random House, 661 pp.

Here, by his own hand, is the strange and terrible truth about Hunter Stockton Thompson, once the wild man of a heaving moment in American letters, now remembered mostly in caricature, as a drug-addled gun nut ranting away in the pages of a dwindling number of publications while milking his notoriety and supplementing his income by pitching drunkenly off the lecture stage of any U.S. college foolhardy enough to book him as a speaker.

The truth is this: by his own hand he redeems himself. The Proud Highway is a fat collection of his correspondence, most of it written long before the persona of Hunter S. Thompson began to overshadow the person. It turns out he has always been a writer of purpose and determination. Not that his image as a dope-fiend outlaw has all been an act. He’s a maniac all right, and you don’t want your daughters going anywhere near him, but his letters reveal a driven soul at work and a genuine talent in formation.

This is the bad seed as role model; a portrait of the artist as a young punk. The collection starts with a third-prize essay he wrote in 1955 while a high school senior in Louisville, an “Open Letter to the Youth of Our Nation.” (“The time has come for you to dispense with the frivolous pleasures of childhood and get down to honest toil until you are 65. Then and only then can you relax and collect your social security and live happily until the time of your death.”)  It ends in 1967, just as his first book, Hell’s Angels, is putting him on the map. (“Yeah, that God damn agent is suing me. I have to get around him somehow. The paperback is selling better than I expected, but I can’t get the money.”) In between, it documents his love affairs and his run-ins with the law, his inability to hold down a salaried job and his escapades as a scrabbling freelancer, running with smugglers in South America and acid-heads in California.

Thompson was not only a prolific letter-writer –  to friends, family, editors, famous writers, companies he felt had bilked him, Lyndon Baines Johnson – but he kept carbon copies of everything, undeterred by penury and repeated rejection, convinced that one day he would be a name to reckon with, so that even his correspondence might be worth something. He was right. The letters are fascinating, and not simply because they leave a record of Thompson’s developing high-octane style. The book is a diary of the despair that goes with trying to establish oneself as a writer. (It may sound romantic to be living hand-to-mouth in Bogota, one step ahead of the creditors, and in retrospect it probably is, but try living it at the time.)

It is also a weird history of America in the ’50s and early ’60s, told from the singular vantage point of an outsider even among outsiders. When the Eisenhower era of conformity gave way to the turbulence of the counter-culture coursing down the pike, it all seemed to be rushing straight toward Hunter S. Thompson. “It’s amazing how much you can get away with if you don’t go out of your way to create trouble,” he once wrote in response to a fan letter from a 14-year-old boy. Coming from Thompson, a walking disaster area, that seems rich advice.

But in fact he rarely courted trouble. It was just that he was always so at odds with the world, trouble naturally sought him out. As a high school senior, he spent a short stretch in the slammer for a robbery he didn’t commit. Upon graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force, as unlikely an environment for a sarcastic non-conformist like Thompson as one could imagine. It was at Eglin Air Force base in Florida, however, that he had his first taste of journalism. Scouting around for a way to escape KP and all the other indignities of military life, he talked his way into the position of sports editor of the base newspaper (by flat out lying about his experience) and promptly set about infuriating his superiors with his inflammatory columns. Discharged in 1957, over the next three years he was hired as the sports editor of a paper in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania (he lied about his age) and shortly fired; hired as a copyboy at Time magazine and fired for insubordination; hired as a reporter at the Middletown Daily Record and fired within two months for kicking in a candy machine; hired as a writer for an insolvent Puerto Rican bowling magazine, of all things, and then left penniless in the Caribbean when the magazine folded.

That was the last time he would ever hold down a salaried job – if you can call that sort of employment record “holding down a job.” The next 10 years were an itinerant pilgrimage – New York to California, California to South America, then back to the West coast – as Thompson flogged his freelance journalism and developed his voice. Interestingly, for a guy who would become famous for his “gonzo” journalism, it was as a novelist that Thompson thought he would make his mark. The journalism was just a way to keep money coming in. (The other way, more dependable and time honoured among young male self-styled geniuses, was to send his wife out to work.) For a decade, he laboured over his novels – first Prince Jellyfish, then something set in Puerto Rico called The Rum Diary – a couple of turkeys that would never be published. He despised the conventions of most journalism of the day – “Facts are lies when they’re added up,” he railed – but he wasn’t too keen on the state of the American novel either.

Even groundbreakers like Jack Kerouac left him cold. What he wanted, more than anything, was to reinvent the form of the novel. Instead, he reinvented what could pass muster as journalism (“It’s amazing how much you can get away with …”).

By 1965, his idiom and the times were simpatico. His ability to penetrate the underclasses, together with that hyperventilated howl in which he wrote, were gradually making him famous.

A magazine article on the Hell’s Angels led to a book contract (typically, Thompson blew the advance on a red BSA 650 Lightning, the fastest motorcycle on the market, so that he could ride with the Angels) and the book, published in early 1967, finally set him on the trajectory to acclaim and the serious money.

His failure as a novelist was a disappointment. Still, he was intensely proud of Hell’s Angels, so much so that an unkind notice could send him into a characteristic rage.

“If all else fails,” he said of one critic, “I’m going out there to pull out his teeth with a pair of wire-cutters.” No artist ever better expressed the sting of a lousy review.

Reading The Proud Highway is like visiting backstage at a Grand Guignol production. You get to see how the theatrics are put together, but it’s no less theatrical than watching the actual

  • Ottawa Citizen May 25, 1997