Hunter S. Thompson - how much is real?

A couple of friends and I just finished reading Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie by Hunter S. Thompson. Amazon Link. We’ve been told by a couple of HST fans that this book was written well after his prime, but we chose to read it for a couple of reasons:

  1. All three of us remember the 1992 presidential election
  2. There are some interesting parallels with this election

This was the first HST experience for each of us. There are some pretty crazy stories in there, about people and events. Some of it is believable, like his campaign for Sheriff. Some seems metaphorical - James Carville stealing his wallet and money on election night, for instance, showing that the enemy of your enemy isn’t always your friend. Some of it seems, quite frankly, like paranoid delusional rambling - like the massive convergences of law enforcement on his home and his luck in making it out of Little Rock alive after meeting Bill Clinton.

It was fun, and I know at least two of us are planning to read some more - I plan to read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail at least. However, before I dive into more, I really want to know the SDMB consensus:

How much is extreme exaggeration / metaphor / paranoia / delusion / some other thing, and how much is reasonably accurate (though slanted)?

I’m OK with whatever that mix is, I just like to know what I’m getting into :slight_smile:

Well, it’s difficult to say. No one knows for sure and that is part of his aim. What is “reality”, man? :wink:

But you have to start with the knowledge that it’s a particular style of writing that is now commonly called “gonzo (journalism)”. In this style there is no attempt to be objective, as there would be in traditional journalism. Some events are even instigated by the author, just so that he can write about his and other’s reactions to the event. Other events may be completely imagined, but “seemed” real to the author at the time, for whatever (cough, drugs, cough) reason. Some parts of H.S.T.'s works also involve stream of conciousness writing, where there is no attempt at self-censorship or after-the-facts editing.

So if you keep in mind that his writing about even real events is often a stylistic experiment, then you’ll know to take it all with a shovel of salt, or just fully believe it - the choice is yours, man.

HST once made a statement about how seriously people took his writing. He said that frequently people would expect Raoul Duke or the Hunter from the books when he was giving a lecture instead of the real Hunter. He basically admitted that some of what he wrote was exaggerated and for many reasons (improve the story, entertainment, provocation, etc). Essentially, Raoul Duke is his misbehaving alter-ego. Read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to get a feel for this. Raoul is the one who left the hotel without paying, trashed the hotel, and arrived while tripping on acid. Although difficult at times, it is easy enough to suss out when he is exaggerating or fabricating. “You buy the ticket, you take the ride.” Just enjoy the tale and don’t get too caught up in what is real and what isn’t. Think of it like your crazy uncle is telling you about that time he… Don’t question, just ride.

He ran for sheriff.
Read fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. He knew his politics and his sports.

I’m quite confident that he has done almost all the drugs that he describes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I have serious doubts that he soaked the floorboards of the convertible with ether while driving to Vegas.

He was pretty out there. Helluva good friend, loyal and generous, verbose and grandiose, fun to be around, but on the edge and ready to go into orbit.

Check out the documentary book/film “Anthem”, where two young women recruit him for a segment in their movie. They loved their time with him, but were glad to escape alive.

I haven’t read a lot of detailed biographies, but I think a decent rule is that the craziest stuff didn’t actually happen but is created to reflect the wildness and experience of being in whatever place he was, at that particular time. For example I don’t think every journalist on the 1972 campaign jets was wrecked on cocaine, although I’m sure some seedy stuff did take place. I’ve always been impressed by how effective Thompson is with that stuff. The exaggerated stories transmit a kind of truth that a journalistic recitation of the facts wouldn’t, and in those parts, the gonzo thing really succeeds.

RUN (Don’t Walk) to your local store or library and get a hold of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, '72. You will be creeped out by the number of similarities between that election and this one. I’ll do a list tomorrow if I have time.

And no, Senator Muskie wasn’t an Ibogaine addict. He just seemed to be.

Get and read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It is a classic of fiction. It is short and compact and a masterpiece. It is fiction. Everything is greatly exaggerated, but by reading this book, you will understand why Thompson uses exaggeration: he is saying that his topics, the events, the police, the town are all lies and corruption, like the exaggeration. He did not do all those drugs in anywhere near the time frame of the book, it would kill anyone. It is satire that occasionally wanders into truth, it is an artists’ impression of what the truth is, and it is frightening. It is the antithesis of Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and even better.

Oh, and Vegas is still an evil place.

I second the recommendation re: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It is an wonderful story, and a hell of a ride. If you can, find the edition that was recently published by (the company with the logo where the guy is running with a torch - I can’t think of it now). It includes both Las Vegas and a few short non-fiction pieces. The best of them is a story about the Hispanic uprising in LA in the 1960s, which he got involved in with Oscar Acosta. Real story, huge issue, and cuts right through all of the bullshit. It also includes some back story on the writing of Las Vegas, the real story.

Also, to get an idea of how he writes about real life, check out Hell’s Angels. It is very straightforward, and deals with all sorts of issues from the complicated 1960s, and also includes some real stories about several drunken nights. It is among the best non-fiction writing ever published.

You may get a better feel for his other work, like '72, by reading the above - it can make it easier to pick out what he’s getting at.

However, in order to be true to HST, you should shut your left brain down while reading his pieces, then when it kicks back in, you’ll see things a little differently…

Thanks all - I really appreciate your insight. As I said, this was my first foray into H.S.T., and I was a bit overwhelmed! I look forward to reading both Fear and Loathing books, with a little better idea of what I’m getting myself into.

As most Board members know, I am a pretty serious fan of the Doctor Of Journalism (accept no substitutes).

Thompson was a very gifted writer. You’d think that every other sentence would get him sued. But read him one sentence at a time. Uncanny. Nothing vaguely actionable. And this is a product, not of mere editing alone, but of his very skilled style.

As for the truth, who can say? I’ve never been able to clearly draw the line.

BTW–try The Curse Of Lono.

This is exactly right - the fiction conveys more truth than the facts would. You can understand something by reading the facts, HST’s writing hits you on a gut level, makes you feel something about the subject.

If you get caught up in the truth/fiction or just plain craziness of what’s going on, you can miss what a damn fine writer the man was. Could turn a phrase like nobody’s business. I still can’t think about Vegas without the phrase “humping the American dream” popping into my head.

It may not be ‘factual’ but it’s all the truth.

My favorite is The Curse of Lono.

That’d be Strange Rumblings in Aztlan, and it’s maybe the most dramatic and serious journalistic work he did. You really get that sense people had in the late 60s and early 70s that a lot of social tension was going to boil over into uncontrolled violence.

I’d recommend The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved as well. Not as momentous as Strange Rumblings or Campaign Trail, but it’s the piece where he started really developing the Gonzo style and it’s a fun read. I try to reread it on Derby day every year.

I still do not believe he killed himself. Although he saw the American dream is over.

Do not forget Hell’s Angels, or the series of articles that kicked off his career, the South American tour. How many men travel to Colombia for the first time, in a returning cocaine smuggling boat?

Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern’s 1972 campaign manager, said of Thompson: “Of all the correspondents, he was the least factual, but the most accurate.”

Really? He had been threatening suicide for years. Most people who knew him thought it was just a matter of when, and not if.

He was supposedly happy in his marriage and finances were good. His health was slowly depreciating. Might have something to do with drugs and booze. He had a great and weird life in Woody Creek. He was however severely depressed at the Bush presidency and thought America was through. But still, I did not see it coming.