Book Review - Gonzo letters

Letters reveal Thompson in top form

Speeding and crashing only to rise from the muck dirty, breathless and gloriously alive, Hunter S. Thompson has done so literally and metaphorically for decades. And despite his legendary substance abuse, love of high-speed vehicles and scads of other health-wrecking avocations, the author, at age 61 (or 63, depending on the source), improbably continues to draw breath. At least enough to help him sift through his massive files of personal correspondence and cobble together this collection of letters — a vast and often beautifully crafted array of fulminations inspired by political dread and financial desperation and fueled, as their contents suggest, by an astounding abundance of alcohol and pharmaceuticals.
But alas, while fans of Thompson owe a great deal of gratitude to the cavalcade of booze, pills and sundry chemicals that entered his bloodstream during the meat of his career, they must also lament the fact that these substances probably helped sap his talents prematurely, reducing his current output to a rambling, nominally sports-related weekly column on ESPN’s website.
All the more reason to welcome the publication of this volume, the second in a projected trilogy that began with 1998’s The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman. In the latest installment, covering 1968-1976, Thompson is at the height of his literary powers and climbing toward the apex of his celebrity. No longer roaming the Northern Hemisphere as an obscure scribe, he has settled into his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colo. When he’s not trying to flood the local political landscape with weirdo, mescaline-eating candidates, himself included, he’s planning and executing the bizarre writing assignments that would define “gonzo” journalism, Thompson’s manic hybrid of fiction writing and reportage in which, to paraphrase, facts often take a backseat to the truth.
From this period came his most significant work, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the depraved and unromantic companion to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72, Thompson’s high-water mark as a political journalist.
Remarkably, he still found time to correspond with a slew of characters, from friends, family and colleagues to political luminaries, mail-order merchants and oddball fans. Even more than in times past, his letters detail feverish running battles with editors, publishers and a host of creditors. Many of the letters in this collection are saturated with protracted haggling over contracts and expense accounts, to the point of tedium in some cases.
However, one the most basic and abundant attractions of this volume is its joyous romp through the author’s vast taxonomy of invective, which includes, but is in no way limited to: worthless lying bastards, worthless scum-sucking bastards, filthy skunk-sucking bastards; devious perverts, filthy twisted perverts, swinish perverts; decadent pigs, criminal pigs, those who copulate with pigs (paraphrased); and a “thieving pile of albino warts,” a tag Thompson lovingly conferred upon friend and author Tom Wolfe.
Such are the inhabitants of Thompson’s hurly-burly universe, which this collection of letters focuses through a heat-warped lens of perspective and prose. The result is an incomparable glimpse into the life and mind of one of America’s true literary icons.