Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson

Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson
Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson by Hunter S. Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've never been drawn into the cult of Hunter Thompson: I've been aware of him, in a rough "he wrote that and that" kind of way, without being intimately familiar with the building blocks of his reputation. From that point of view, this chronologically-arranged collection of interviews certainly helped me to pin down the significant events in the creation of the myth surrounding him. However, the more I read, the more I felt seeds of suspicion begin to burrow: those famous incidents-- his time with the Hell's Angels, talking football with Nixon, on the trail with successive Presidential candidates in the 70s-- get trotted out again, and again, and again, at every opportunity, and each time they sound a little more misty-eyed, a little more lacking in centrality: despite himself, Thompson ends up sounding like one of those old-time war veterans who reveal just how peripheral they were to the main thrust of events-- the stores clerk whose anecdotes place him on the shores at Omaha Beach, but show that he arrived long after the fighting had moved on.

And there's another accidental revelation in placing so much of Thompson's direct interactions with interviewers in so enclosed a space: the sudden understanding, halfway through, that the man himself is something of an intellectual coward. Time and again he launches into an outrageous exclamation, only to duck and weave away from it when challenged in any sort of meaningful way. This is especially apparent in transcripts of talks he gives to gatherings of students, which more often than not degenerate into pantomime performances where he pretends not to hear questions, accuses his inquisitor of stupidity or misunderstanding, and otherwise bends himself in knots trying to avoid justifying his statements. Not, perhaps, quite so noticeable at the live event, but clear as crystal when laid out in type.

None of it makes Thompson any less fascinating a study: if anything, this lifelong adherence to weasel logic and continued refusal to accept responsibility for his statements enhances the interest in his character, because it quickly becomes apparent that Thompson has a couple of golden moments early in his career and is able to parlay them into a long, slow, gently declining reputation that sustains him far longer than it might otherwise have done. And the ways in which he manages to sustain his time in the limelight through increasingly shrill and desperate proclamations makes for compulsive reading, until the inevitable relief when reaching the end of the book and having it, finally, all end.

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