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Writer examines Hunter Thompson and "birth of gonzo"

It’s a famous scene in literature: a traveler, perhaps in a spirit of fear and or loathing, enters a bleak landscape, only to be surrounded by swooping, diving bats. Surely you recall the opening of Book 23 of Homer’s Odyssey:

 

Hermes herded the souls with his staff

And the souls, like a flock of seething bats,

Flapped and squealed in a great black writhing mass

Down in the depths of a plummeting, bottomless cave

 

What, you thought I mean that Hunter Thompson book?

One of the enjoyable things about Kevin T. McEneaney’s new book, Hunter S. Thompson: Fear, Loathing and the Birth of Gonzo, is the way it draws unexpected connections like that — linking the bats that flap through the memorable early paragraphs of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the disembodied souls in Homer; or reminding readers that “Raoul” (Thompson’s alter ego is “Raoul Duke”) was the name of James Earl Ray’s alleged alibi in the shooting of Martin Luther King; or likening the car in Fear and Loathing to the atom bomb that Slim Pickens rides through the sky in Kubric’s Dr. Strangelove, a comic tip of the hat from one apocalyptic visionary to another.

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“There is an apocalyptic motif that runs through the book,” McEneaney says, “and that just fits perfectly in.”

McEneaney will discuss his book at The Writer’s Block at 7 p.m. tomorrow, August 30 (free; thewritersblock.org). We recently spent a few minutes picking his brain.

 

ON WHERE HIS BOOK FITS IN AMONG OTHER BOOKS ON THOMPSON

There were biographies and many, many memoirs written by friends. But this is the first literary study of his work. That’s why I did it, because nobody else had done it. Nobody had seen that behind his sophomoric humor, he was a much more educated man. He pretended to be a hillbilly freak, but he was much more educated and sophisticated than he let on. But he was not formally educated; that is, he was a great reader, an autodidact.

 

ON WHAT CONVINCED HIM THERE WAS MORE TO SAY ABOUT THOMPSON

I guess it was it was the last and best biography, Outlaw Journalist by William McKeen. It recounted an anecdote about Thompson living with (his friend) Paul Semonin in New York. Semonin was going to Columbia University, in the Great Books program. Thompson would read the same books that were being taught — Rabelais, Cervantes, that kind of thing. I had gone to Columbia University and I was familiar with the philosophy that literature is a wider lens. That gave me a kind of door into Thompson’s mind, so that later on I could realize that he was very influenced by people like Oswald Spengler and Friedrich Nietzsche.

 

ON WHETHER HIS BOOK MIGHT REFRAME COMMON PERCEPTIONS OF THOMPSON

That was my intent, yeah. I think that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was one of the 10 greatest novels of American literature in the 20th century. That was the basic point — I didn’t state that in the book, but that was the point I was really trying to make.

Also, if (Fear and Loathing) was used in a college course, here was a book for the instructor to teach from, so they could enjoy the sophomoric humor, but it would also introduce them to the great period of rock ’n’ roll, as well as the classics of literature. You could bring all that into the classroom. You could play The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan for them, or whatever, and talk to them about Homer or Rabelais.

 

ON THE HARDEST PART OF THE BOOK TO WRITE

The chapter on The Curse of Lono. I must’ve done about two dozen drafts of that chapter. It is such a thorny, inward book. The publishers thought Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was his Iliad, and that he should do an Odyssey. And there are many references to The Odyssey in The Curse of Lono. But he never really got to finish it.

That book is so inward, and it has so many personal allusions about his own life, about Hawaiian real estate, about his divorce, Homer. I got the sense he didn’t really know how to end the book, so you get this Robert Louis Stevenson/Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde ending, with just (an exchange of letters between Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman). I was amazed that no one made the connection between Robert Louis Stevenson — it’s a satiric story about drugs — and Thompson. Nobody seemed to make that connection. I was surprised by that.

 

ON FINDING MANY LITERARY AND POP-CULTURE REFERENCES IN THOMPSON’S WORK

When I showed an early draft of the book to (Thompson’s literary executor) Douglas Brinkley, he called me “Mr. Angles” — I’d put more angles to Thompson’s narrative than he ever thought of.

(Interview edited and condensed)

 

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Feb 24, 2005

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