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Hunter S. Thompson’s mixed legacy

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Posted: Friday, March 4, 2005 10:00 pm

Gonzo: Bizarre, unrestrained or extravagant; used esp. of a style of personal journalism.

Hunter S. Thompson, the drug-infused founder of gonzo journalism, is gone now, having put a bullet in his 67-year-old brain.

He wrote numerous articles, several books and scads of letters.

Studying journalism in the Bay Area in the early '70s, I admired Thompson's writing style. It was fresh, witty -- and searing.

So what is the legacy of Hunter Stockton Thompson, the celebrated son of a Kentucky insurance agent so infatuated with guns, whiskey and the word "twisted?"

As a journalist, he was just a middling reporter. Thompson was typically not interested in his subject; he was the subject.

Richard Hanner

He published his now-celebrated "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," in Rolling Stone in 1971. It was a rollicking, manic, hilarious story about Thompson being sent to cover an off-road race called The Mint 400.

He never got there.

Instead, he told of rolling across the desert in a red convertible, ingesting a Hometown Buffet of illicit drugs and ranting about Bob Dylan, Joe Frazier, Richard Nixon and other cultural/political figures of the day.

Dr. Gonzo wasn't much on reportorial fastidiousness, though he would later argue that he was not after mere facts, but something much larger; The Truth. Critics could contend, with some validity, that he sometimes delivered neither.

He certainly lacked the literary prowess of a Norman Mailer, whose "The Executioner's Song" was a triumphal blend of novelistic technique with nonfiction subject. Reading Thompson is to read a supercharged chronological screed, often as thrilling and uncomplicated as a roller coaster ride. (His best journalistic effort was "The Hells Angels," a gutsy, near-voyeuristic observation of the outlaw motorcycle gang.)

He sometimes was referred to as a doctor of journalism. Yet he was no investigative reporter, no Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh, out to change the world with careful craft and extreme diligence.

Thompson was more a political satirist, really, his bite as sharp and acid-edged as Lenny Bruce's. Like Bruce, he was self-orbiting, addicted, and in obvious pain. Looking back, much of Thompson's writing was a very public display of continual self-medication.

If nothing else, though, Thompson was a talented stylist and he could flat out turn a phrase.

He wrote "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," while stoned and wildly confused. When it came out to stunningly positive reviews, he said it was like, "falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids."

Covering the 1972 presidential campaign, Thompson said working for candidate Edmund Muskie was "something like being locked in a rolling box car with a vicious 200-pound water rat."

The gonzo writing of Thompson fused with the work of Mailer and Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe to form what is called the New Journalism. Clearly not so new anymore, it allowed writers to present nonfiction material in a more personal and creative framework.

That is not an altogether bad thing, as we in journalism struggle to attract readers with better and more sophisticated storytelling.

The danger for a young journalist is to put style over substance, to place himself or herself at the center of the story, to relish opinion over fact.

It is a tribute to Hunter S. Thompson's raw talent, if not his craft, that did all of this, and got away with it.

Richard Hanner is the Lodi News-Sentinel's editor. He can be contacted at (209) 369-7035 or by e-mail at richardh@lodinews.com.

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