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Author Kevin McEneaney On 'Fear, Loathing And The Birth Of Gonzo'


Courtesy of Ralph Steadman/Sony Pictures Classics

Ralph Steadman's drawing of Hunter S. Thompson's car beset by huge bats illustrated "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" in 1971. Courtesy of Ralph Steadman/Sony Pictures Classics

Johnny Depp channeled author Hunter S. Thompson in the 1998 film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Thompson’s book of the same title was published 45 years ago, but continues to sell 60,000 to 70,000 copies a year.

Thompson was the founder of what he called “gonzo journalism,” and his effect on writers has had a lasting impact even after his death in 2005.

Now, author Kevin McEneaney has delved into the gonzo world again with his 2016 literary study, “Hunter S. Thompson, Fear, Loathing, and the Birth of Gonzo.”


Why did you decide to take an in-depth look at the literary works of Hunter S. Thompson?

I was in the book selling business and I was the memory man in a very large basement and that book used to be stolen from the store. So, we would keep it in the basement and send it up by a dumb waiter because it sold quite well.

Then it occurred to me that there may not be all that much in terms of a serious study, literary study on Thompson and it turned out to be true.

I read “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” I just noticed a lot of things that people would either forget as time went on or they really didn’t understand. Behind a lot of Thompson’s surface humor, there is a philosophy and major literary allusions and influences. I wanted to bring all that together.

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It’s been 45 years: were you able to find new information on Thompson and that seminal gonzo work? 

The only new information I was able to find out from Ana Kennedy, the writer William Kennedy’s wife, that she had Thompson’s x-rays before he died and that it was showing that the infection that he had gotten the second time he had broken his hip had been going up his spinal cord and there was nothing they could do about it and it would eventually hit his brain and I think that’s when he committed suicide.

What do you see about Las Vegas that is different than the Las Vegas featured in the book?

One of his main themes is this kind of corporate Disneyland that was shaping Las Vegas even back then. And he saw that as a kind of template that would spread all over the country and really define the soul of the country.  Of course, it was something he was opposed to.

Do you think he really thought Las Vegas was a seventh circle of hell?

Yeah, I do. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is in two parts and the account of the first part he had a lot of fun. He enjoyed it. In his second stay, he didn’t enjoy it. There is his ambivalence. But the book itself is a satire, and it’s a satire on a lot of things. It’s a satire on centering one’s life around money. The illusion of gambling.

Now, your book talks in detail about some of the things that Thompson didn’t get published: 

There is still a large body of material that has still not been published.  The last real thing of significance that’s been published is this two volumes of letters and these letters were really a revelation. These letters were on the level of Mencken or Cheever. So it was a real surprise.

There is a lot of humor in the letters and Thompson often wrote letters to people in public life without expecting them ever to reply. He wrote letters to all presidents. The only president to reply at all was Jimmy Carter.    

When he was running for sheriff of Aspen, he wrote a letter to Carter and Carter wrote him a very witty letter back, saying that he was glad that Thompson had the courage to come forward and be a public candidate and run for President of the United States and he was looking forward to publically debating him on television. And thanking Thompson for bringing up larger issues that were not normally covered by the media.

In 1968, Thompson had press credentials to cover the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was one of 65 press members beaten or arrested by police. What impact did that have on Thompson and his work? 

It had the most significant impact. He went to the convention as a liberal Republican and ended up being further than a left-wing democrat, some kind of democrat/libertarian.

It radicalized him. As it did many journalists.

His account was never published. I’ve never seen it. I suspect it’s far too personal. And the fact that Norman Mailer published his “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” which is one of Mailer’s very best books. He decided he didn’t want to compete.

He was one of these people who wanted to be the best in whatever it was he was doing. If he thought, he wouldn’t be the best he would quit.

How would you describe his interesting humor?

 A lot of the roots of that humor is really rooted in adolescent, high school humor. It is very interesting to young people and that’s why young people continue to read him. Much of that humor is of this bravado of exaggeration, the pulling of pranks, the making fun of authority.

Do you think his “gonzo journalism” still plays a role in contemporary comedy and writing? 

It still exists but it kind of transmuted over time into television news. People like Bill Maher, Colbert, they’re coming right out of Thompson. That’s who they’re channeling in terms of their sensibility. Of course, they have their own personalities.

Why didn’t he continue as a traditional journalist?

He had great success as a fictional writing with “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” He always continued to be a traditional journalist. He started out in sports journalism and when his health started declining he went back to sports journalism. For 10 years of his life, he worked for ESPN.

Do you think you know who Hunter S. Thompson was?

I think I understand him much more. I like his writing but I don’t think I would have liked to know him.

As a man, he liked to have very intimate friends. Friendship meant something very large in his life. And he was always paranoid of strangers. I really don’t know. Maybe we would get along but I think he had two personalities, one for his friends and family, and one for the public.

You’ve read all of his works except for those that weren’t publish. Do you think he lived up to potential?

No I don’t. I think that his life in many different ways fell apart and become very difficult after his divorce. I think she gave a steadying influence on him. And in many ways, she was a good editor but I think he was a little bit of a lost man after that divorce.  

McEneaney will host a talk and book signing Tuesday, Aug. 30 at the Writers Block


Kevin McEneaney, author, "Fear, Loathing and the Birth of Gonzo" 

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