Failed expeditions into the heart of lonely Hunter
Three biographies of Hunter S. Thompson were published within weeks of each other. But only one was worth reading.
The Globe and Mail, March 1, 1993
Hunter: the Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson
by E. Jean Carroll
Dutton, 341 pages, $29.99
Fear And Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson
by Paul Perry
Thunder’s Mouth Press, 274 pages, $28.75
When The Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson
by Peter O. Whitmer
Hyperion, 335 pages, $27.95
Three biographies of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson have hit stores within weeks of each other. The cause of this sudden frenzy to document the life, times and substance abuse of a living monument to wretched excess and moral outrage is mystifying. At 56, Thompson isn’t approaching a particularly momentous age, although every birthday is a milestone for a man whose physician says he should have been dead two decades ago and who himself predicted he wouldn’t live to see 28.
However, this instant glut of Thompsoniana has troubling implications for anyone who had hoped he might pull himself out of the inexorable downward slide he seems to have been trapped in for the last 10 years. Once they start publishing your biography, old sport, it’s tantamount to having them chisel the dates onto your tombstone. Documenting a person’s life and trying to make some sense of it is a task that’s only embarked on once it’s assumed your subject has already accomplished everything likely to be worth documenting.
Thompson may yet prove these biographies premature: three-quarters of a long-promised novel titled Polo Is My Life is said to be languishing on an editor’s desk at Random House, and Better Than Sex: Fear & Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’92 is set for publication in July. That’s four months late, and given Thompson’s reputation for demolishing deadlines, it indicates almost ascetic discipline.
Luckily, only one of these biographies even comes close to doing the job right. Luckily, because it means a lot less reading for any Thompson fanatics daunted by more than 900 pages about a Kentucky sociopath whose meandering high-speed course through the late 20th century’s main cultural and political upheavals enabled him to write about them with keen insight and slashes of weird black humor.
Journalist E. Jean Carroll’s Hunter is the worst of the three, She lurches headlong into the most obvious trap inherent in writing a biography of Hunter Thompson: using his own methods. Just as Thompson created his alter-ego Raoul Duke, so Carroll has come up with “Miss Laetitia Snap” — a prim, easily shocked ornithologist — who gets seduced by Thompson and then imprisoned in a dry concrete cistern at his Colorado hillbilly compound and ordered to write Thompson’s biography. The conceit is suspect at best, and its utter failure is only compounded by the fact that Carroll can’t make the Snap character even remotely credible.
When Carroll isn’t hiding behind clumsy soft-core pornography and a tissue-thin fictional persona, she pretends to be George Plimpton, presenting excerpts from interviews with a random assortment of Thompson acquaintances, friends, associates, co-workers, bosses and enemies. Plimpton developed the technique of reproducing verbatim interview transcripts for his “oral biography” of Warhol Factory alumna Edie Sedgwick. There, it worked, because George Plimpton is a writer and because the interview excerpts were selected to hang together as a narrative which made sense and offered a portrait of its subject.
Here, it fails, because the interview segments add up to an unintended portrait of a non-writer desperately trying to fill the pages of a biography.
Paul Perry, who wrote the aggressively mediocre Fear & Loathing, disparaged Carroll’s book by pointing out that sleeping with one’s sources was a bad idea. But maybe Perry should have tried it. Drug-addled animal passion might have been preferable to the pallid, tentative miasma of unrelated anecdotes Perry offers. In addition to being poorly written — and endless memo in bloodless bureaucratese — Perry’s book is also the most sloppy and error-ridden of the three. The editing of his manuscript would seem to have consisted of someone’s checking to make sure there was typing on at least one side of the page, and, finding there was, looking no further.
Peter Whitmer, unlike Perry and Carroll, wanted to document what had produced the man and the mind that produced the work. And because he set out to portray a human being rather than a legend or a myth, he renders a fuller, more insightful portrait in When the Going Gets Weird than either of his rivals. The fact he can write doesn’t hurt, either.
As Whitmer realizes, Hunter Thompson once turned his abiding fury into incendiary indictments of America’s most grotesque failures — the Hell’s Angels, the 1972 presidential campaign, and probably most famous of all, Las Vegas. But Thompson foretold his own doom in a piece he wrote about how former Olympic skier Jean-Claude Killy was hired as a shill for Chevrolet in 1970. He described fame as “a crazily inflated culture-economy that eats its heroes like hotdogs and honors them on about the same level.” And, as he wrote in Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, “that wisdom cuts both ways.”
Unfortunately, Thompson’s fame — part drug disposal, part comic-strip character, part rock star — is what Carroll and Perry both went after as the subject of their books. Their attitudes are exactly the kind of treatment that damaged Thompson’s ability by making his work redundant. He’s been granted more approval and garnered more attention for his outrageous actions than his outraged words. Perhaps, if he’d just once skated right over the mysterious Edge he loves to ride along, it might have instilled a stronger drive to create, the write more and to write better by convincing him irrefutably that he’s mortal. Tragically, he’s cursed with an iron constitution and more pure dumb luck than any other living human being.