Last night I watched Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. It was a fine way to spend an otherwise miserable Monday evening. Okay, I’m a couple of years behind on this one, but Thompson’s been off my radar since his 2005 suicide. I’ve read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and I used to look forward to his Rolling Stone contributions, but I’d forgotten how much I admire his writing. This film reminded me.
Take, for instance, his portrait of Hell’s Angels: “Like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given; show the squares some class, give ‘em a whiff of those kicks they’ll never know…” I’m struck by the tempo. I can imagine Thompson’s voice building in near stream-of-consciousness toward a manic, menacing crescendo. I’m satisfied that I don’t want to invoke Thompson’s chemical muse, but damn I wish I could write like he did. I have a hard time mustering the guts to say what I mean without worrying about what the reader might think. Thompson didn’t seem to have that problem. I’ll just keep at it, I guess, and keep reminding myself that it’s not easy. Even Thompson hinted at frustration. “I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work,” he said. “I suspect it’s a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling.”
Good writing may be as much a question of life experience as it is hard work. Gonzo opens with Johnny Depp’s reading of Thompson’s blog post from September 12, 2001, an astoundingly prophetic passage that reveals the grim prescience of a correspondent who had tasted much ugliness: “The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives…We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once. Who knows? Not even the Generals in what remains of the Pentagon or the New York papers calling for WAR seem to know who did it or where to look for them. This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed — for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. He will declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on Everybody, no matter where they live or why. If the guilty won’t hold up their hands and confess, he and the Generals will ferret them out by force.”
Thompson spent much of his career covering politics, unabashedly voicing his contempt for many of the wirepullers with whom he came in contact. He was an enthusiastic Nixon hater, and in 1994 offered this acid eulogy of the former president: “If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning.” Thompson didn’t reserve his ire for Republicans. He described Bill Clinton (also in 1994) as a man with “the sense of loyalty of a lizard with its tail broken off,” adding that the president had “the midnight taste of a man who might go on a double-date with the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart.”
It’s too bad Thompson decided to cash it in. As Jimmy Buffet notes in the film, we could use a little of his Gonzoness today.