By Christopher Harper
Fifty years ago, Hunter S. Thompson became the father of Gonzo journalism, an irreverent brand of reporting that influenced many young writers, including me.
Thompson and artist Ralph Steadman “covered” the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s, a small, progressive magazine.
Thompson, who grew up in Louisville and hated it, described the focus of the story as “the vicious-drunk Southern bourbon horse-shit mentality that surrounds the Derby than in the Derby itself.”
In an excellent article in Quillette, author David Wills described Thompson’s approach of Gonzo, a reference to a song he played regularly on the 1968 campaign trail:
“He tended to insert himself into the prose as observer and participant, embark on weird and irrelevant digressions, recount conversations and events that probably never happened, discard any pretense of objectivity, lurch erratically in and out of hyperbole and paranoia, and dust his prose with a litany of stylistic quirks and a peculiar lexis that included words like ‘atavistic,’ ‘swine,’ ‘savage,’ and ‘doomed.’ It was a subjective, chaotic, and messy approach to journalism.”
Wills captured the essence of the Derby article:
“The first half recounts Thompson’s arrival in Kentucky, a prank played on a gullible racist at the airport, and then his meeting with Steadman. The second half is a disjointed but somehow intensely personal account of a day spent staggering around the Derby in an inebriated state, terrifying attendees, and spraying a restaurant full of patrons with mace. Thompson and Steadman didn’t bother to actually watch the race they had been sent to cover…. It was a highly unusual piece of writing that trashed the conventions of traditional reporting in favor of a freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll antagonism. It was funny but aggressive, satirical and cruel, and only loosely factual. It was neither exactly journalism nor exactly fiction.” See https://quillette.com/2020/05/02/decadence-and-depravity-in-louisville-kentucky/
As a young journalist, I loved that Thompson did everything I was told NOT to do. His articles were like the Playboy and pack of Old Gold cigarettes you kept hidden from your parents as a teenager. I first read Thompson in Rolling Stone, where he offered some of his most famous prose, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1971 and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in 1972.
In Las Vegas, Thompson was investigating the killing of journalist Ruben Salazar, who died covering an antiwar protest in Los Angeles. On a side trip, Thompson and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta arrived in Sin City, where they indulged in psychedelics, an activity they repeated when they returned a month later to cover a conference on the nation’s drug problem. Eventually, Thompson wrote about drugs in the United States, which became an epitaph for the 1960s.
Heavily inspired by J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, it offers a wild and funny story of sports journalist Raoul Duke, Thompson alter-ego, and his attorney running amok in Las Vegas.
Although many people think the 1972 campaign book is his best—and it was quite good at the time—Vegas was Thompson’s masterpiece.
From the mid-seventies onward, however, his output became progressively weaker as Thompson turned to cocaine. As Wills put it: “The one-man literary genre was soon washed up, sold out, and left to reflect upon chances missed. Thompson had earned his place in the literary canon with staggering innovations in form, but he burned out and stopped pushing…. [W]hen a great writer can no longer write, and when even the possibility of turning out another great book no longer exists, there is little else to do.”
Thompson committed suicide in 2005. He was 67, a year younger than I am now. Per his wishes, Thompson’s ashes were fired out of a cannon in a ceremony funded by his friend Johnny Depp and attended by friends, including then-Senator John Kerry and Jack Nicholson.