Bookmarks: A savage journey to the heart of HST’s gonzo
A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews
Wednesday, February 20, is an anniversary of sorts. It was on this day in 2005 that journalist and author Hunter S Thompson died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. Many of the obituaries that followed, and indeed the books, suggested that with his passing, so too went gonzo, the sub-genre of the so-called new journalism which Thompson pioneered, a form in which the writer became not only a central figure and participant in the events of the narrative, but also an increasingly unreliable witness. Another nail, then, in the coffin of print.
An acclaimed new book, Freak Kingdom: Hunter S Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism (Public Affairs) by Timothy Denevi, not only looks at Thompson and his work in the 1960s and early 1970s, but also sets that account into the context of the Donald Trump era.
These early years were arguably the period of Thompson’s best work. It was during this time that he coined the term “fear and loathing”, a phrase now overused by hacks and a journalism cliche. For Thompson, though, the fear and loathing was primal, and the term encapsulated perfectly the recidivism and greed of US political culture that came to a head with Richard Nixon’s 1972 election victory. As he later wrote in his 1994 obituary of the president:
“I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got the chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.”
But before Nixon, before Las Vegas, before the unhinged escapades that made him a poster-boy for undergraduate “animal house” behaviour, Thompson was a struggling “conventional” reporter of sorts, and Denevi’s book chronicles the slog of humping a typewriter and camera across the Americas as a freelancer in the early 1960s churning out copy for whatever leftish, fringe publication would print his “first-person contemporary chronicling”.
The earliest hint of what was to come appeared in 1965, in The Motorcycle Gangs, a long magazine essay. This was expanded a year later for his first book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (Penguin Modern Classics). By 1971, and his berserk exposé-cum-roman-à-clef, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, Thompson had reached an apotheosis, and within a few short years the work that followed would be shadows of former glories.
Here and there, though, there were remarkable insights. On New Year’s Eve in 1985 Thompson wrote: “Ted Kennedy is in town this week, along with Donald Trump and Adnan Khashoggi, with his squadron of black-shirted bodyguards. People are afraid … where will it end? Mount Etna is erupting again … There is no respect, and there is more than one hog in the tunnel. Carpe Diem. Prepare to eat or be eaten.”
Indeed. Kennedy is dead. So is Khashoggi. And his journalist nephew, Jamal. Trump endures, though. And more than one commentator has suggested we need commentators like Hunter now more than ever.
Often imitated, but seldom with any form of success. That, alas, is the way of gonzo. One of the few who came close, though, was the New York magazine writer E Jean Carroll, who adopted the style, albeit in parodic form, for her 1993 biography, Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S Thompson (Dutton). Carroll, for example, is on dubious ground when she says that Thompson threatened to imprison her in a cage of peacocks and use her as a hot-tub sex slave in drug-fuelled orgies. All the same, she does reveal some strange truths about her subject. Such as the fact that he was an obsessive dental flosser.
She updated Hunter in 2011, with a new foreword in which she decried the effect of social media on present generations. “Back in the 20th century,” she writes, “people were frightened of Hunter’s book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They worried about his iconic status and his journalism’s ‘effect’ on ‘youth’. I don’t see any effect. Do you? When was the last time you saw a ‘youth’ do anything more iconoclastic than defriend someone unattractive on Facebook?” It was time, she said, that the “dullards” and “pantywaists” turned off their smartphones and tap into their “inner Hunter”. Here, verbatim, is Carroll’s seven-step programme to do just that: DRUGS. Get Off Your Ritalin and Adderall. The whole point of life is to enjoy your Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
WARDROBE. You Need a Hat. Accessorise with a vicious Doberman, a clove cigarette in a holder, tinted aviators, tennis shorts-in-the-dead-of-winter and woman’s wig with blonde limpy curls.
WHISKEY. Never Drink at Work. Leave work to get drunk.
SEX. Pretend to Listen to Women Very Closely. It turns them to mush faster than looks, money, or fame.
FOOD. Breakfast is Sacred. Eat it alone, and never before 3pm. It should consist of two grapefruits (the secret of longevity!), six cups of coffee, two tall glasses of orange juice, scrambled eggs with hot sauce, cheese and chillies, four rashers of bacon, refried beans, hot-buttered toast, two or three wedges of key lime pie, a couple of margaritas, all the papers, ESPN, and half-a-grinder of cocaine.
TALK. Mumble So No-One Can Understand You. If they cannot understand you, you can ignore them.
DEATH. Don’t be concerned whether your books will “live on” – they will die – the trick is for you to live on. Carroll also makes the following point: “Great writers deserve great biographies; but the person has not yet been born with the skill to write about Hunter.” Nevertheless, she made a good go at it, and her book is well worth tracking down. For the HST neophytes, though, start with his anthology, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (Picador).
SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE BLACK, ETC
Perhaps because they are least affected by it, white people tend to be extraordinarily dof when it comes to racism. That, at least, is what Seattle-based sociologist Robin DiAngelo claims to have learnt after running diversity-training and cultural-competency workshops for US companies for the past 20 years.
As Katy Waldman, a staff writer at The New Yorker, writes in her July 2018 review of DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Penguin): “Like waves on sand, their reactions form predictable patterns: they will insist that they ‘were taught to treat everyone the same’, that they are ‘colour-blind’, that they ‘don’t care if you are pink, purple, or polka-dotted’. They will point to friends and family members of colour, a history of civil-rights activism, or a more ‘salient’ issue, such as class or gender. They will shout and bluster. They will cry.”
DiAngelo is white, and her book is mostly directed at white people; though she claims she doesn’t wish to berate them but rather, to quote Waldman, “propel awareness and tangible action”, it is the usual culprits who come in for stick here: the white liberals who won’t acknowledge their roles in racist systems. “I believe,” Di Angelo writes, “that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of colour.”
Moreover, DiAngelo insists that not only do they fail to notice this, but their approach to combating racism is entirely self-serving. “To the degree that white progressives think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.” At the same time, she argues, white people cling to a notion of racial innocence that effectively denies black people a role as “havers” of race and having custody of racial knowledge. Arguing that race shouldn’t matter, or “colour-blindness”, negates the understanding that it really, really does matter.
In interviews, DiAngelo has suggested that few white people will think they need to read her book. “I know my people really well,” she recently told the Guardian’s Nosheen Iqbal, “and we will do whatever we can to mark ourselves as ‘not racist’.” Somebody, of course, has been buying the book; in the US it is a bestseller. But it is a US book, for US audiences, and critics in the UK have been a little more wary in their approach to White Fragility, which has just been released internationally.
Iqbal, for one, questions whether the “righteous” energy and invigoration that DiAngelo claims to derive as a diversity trainer could itself be “a marker for white privilege” and notes: “I can’t think of a single non-white person who enjoys talking about race or feels energised by it. More often than not, it is awkward, uncomfortable and frustrating.”
Meanwhile, over at London’s Sunday Times, Trevor Phillips dismisses DiAngelo’s book as “a zealot’s atonement for past sins”, an exercise in unbearable smugness and “a poor flyer for the worst kind of diversity training”.
In her narrow view, Phillips writes: “You can’t help being a supremacist if you’re born white. And there’s no absolution on offer here. As she says: ‘A positive white identity is an impossible goal. [It] is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy.’
“Bad luck. I suppose you could undertake a lifetime of penitence; but that’s obviously just another way of making you feel better about your dreadful racism. The best you could hope for is to be ‘less white’, that is to say, ‘less racially oppressive’. Wonderfully, DiAngelo needs no forgiveness because, according to her black friends, she is the most amazingly ‘woke’ white person they know, or as she primly puts it, ‘somewhat more racially aware than other whites’.”
Phillips is especially appalled by a chapter in which DiAngelo recounts how for an hour she lectured a woman who attended one of her diversity-training sessions on why she had no right to cry over the shooting of an unarmed black man by the police. Her black colleagues, DiAngelo tells her, are “in no mood” for white tears. Oddly, DiAngelo’s “own weeping is excused because she is simply bearing witness to the ‘pain of racism’; her tears are ‘thoughtful’ and she tries to ‘cry quietly’.”
This unkindness, Phillips adds, is justified by DiAngelo’s citing the long history of white women falsely accusing black men of rape; sickening as this may be, it does not, in his view, warrant the criminalisation of empathy. “It is not that DiAngelo has nothing to say about the parlous state of American race relations,” he writes. “It is just hard to discern through the suffocating fog of her self-righteousness.”
Phillips, coincidentally, is the co-author, along with his novelist brother Mike Phillips, of Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (HarperCollins), a 1998 history described as “one of the most important books ever to have been published on the black British experience”. As a broadcaster, he produced the BBC documentary series, Windrush. Unlike DiAngelo, he is black.
BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND?
One of the more arresting revelations in Marcus du Sautoy’s new book on artificial intelligence, The Creativity Code: How AI Is Learning to Write, Paint and Think (Fourth Estate), concerns a 2016 musical about the all-women anti-nuke demonstrations outside the Royal Air Force’s Greenham Common base in the 1980s.
It was composed by algorithms dubbed “Android Lloyd Webber”. Elsewhere, the classical AI “composer” known as “Emmy” (for “Experiments in Musical Intelligence”) has knocked out versions of Bach chorales and Chopin mazurkas that, it is claimed, have fooled audiences into believing they were the real thing.
On a more droll note, another algorithm was programmed to come up with “pseudo-Bob Dylan” lyrics to be sung to the tune of the Beatles’ Yesterday. The result? “Innocence … / in the wind it whispers to the day / Out the door but I could leave today / She knocked upon it … anyway.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it.” – The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Doubleday) by Hallie Rubenhold.