You’d like to learn more about Thompson’s wild reporting, but you’re not sure where to start. One of America’s most creative writers is featured in this guide to his frenetic, courageous, and unforgettable work.
Fifty years ago this month, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was first published by “Doctor” Hunter S. Thompson, who is most renowned for his booze and drug-fuelled journalism. But what more can be found in his massive collection of letters, journalism compilations, short tales, and novels? We’ve compiled a list of the best “gonzo” books to get you started.
Hell’s Angels: The Strange And Terrible Saga Of Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1967)
Perhaps the most important work to emerge from America’s “New Journalism” movement of the 1960s. When it came to writing, this was essentially a style of journalism where the hack himself (and it was nearly always men) would forgo the notion of objectivity and express his opinion violently while putting himself at the center of the story at hand. There are few, if any, exponents of the New Journalism movement who were able to pull it off successfully. Among the few notable examples of the genre were Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and, of course, Thompson, whose Hell’s Angels novel will never be bettered.
Hell’s Angels members savagely “stomped” on Thompson after years of living, drinking, and arguing with him. This is a gutsy and in-depth piece of reporting. Thompson’s tremendously engrossing depiction of life at the more dark end of the American counter-culture of the day frequently puts him in real danger.
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey To The Heart Of The American Dream (1972)
Once in a while, when things get too difficult and the weasels start closing in, the only genuine solution is to stock up on obscene substances and drive from Hollywood to Las Vegas like an idiot. In this, Hunter’s best-known piece, under the pseudonym Raoul Duke, he expresses the same sentiments as many Americans today. Due to Duke and his Samoan attorney’s binge-drinking, the grotesqueries of Sin City and police drug prevention conventions and vintage car rallies get even more disfigured as they cover various journalism tasks while attempting to maintain their sanity.
Thompson’s high-octane drug-fueled hijinks cover passages that seem to expose Thompson’s great grief at the demise of the hippie dream after he failed to win political office in his hometown of Aspen as a “Freak Power” candidate. he stated, “…the sickness was considered to be terminal, and the energy of the Movement had long since aggressively depleted by the rush to self-preservation.”
Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973)
One of the most hilarious and dysfunctional presidential election accounts ever written, Hunter’s book made a million spiky, intelligent teenagers want a career in journalism and was written in a white heat where it appeared Hunter was on the edge of a nervous collapse. It wasn’t long before Hunter started making up stories like the one about Ed Muskie’s Brazilian witchdoctor providing him with a psychedelic known to make people think they’re salamanders, a hallucinogenic known to make people think they’re salamanders.
The booze-soaked, cynical, morale-destroying torpor of political campaigning is shown by his frantic tour of the United States on the trail of George McGovern’s unsuccessful attempt to topple Richard Nixon. For the rest of his career, Hunter avoided front-line domestic and political reporting. You have no right to be angry with him.
The Great Shark Hunt (1979)
As a result of the increasing deterioration in Hunter journalism collections over the course of the 20th century, this 1979 collection is the only one you’ll ever need. This book demonstrates that he was an excellent investigative reporter in his early pieces on the Peruvian military coup of 1962 and the police killings in Rio de Janeiro before the “gonzo” experiments. Thompson’s rapid transformation from brilliant hack to generation-defining documenter of the age occurs quickly, and his 1970 representation of the Kentucky Derby (featured below) is where the passionate, visceral, free-flowing Thompson we know finally erupts.
As the 1970s progress, Thompson’s ego begins to wreak havoc on his abilities in this collection. One of Thompson’s worst mistakes as a writer was failing to step back and let Muhammad Ali, the greatest athlete of the twentieth century, speak for himself in his series of descriptions of numerous meetings with Ali (first published in 1978 in Rolling Stone magazine).
Kingdom Of Fear (2003)
Thompson always writes from the heart, whether it’s about politics, drugs, or freedom of speech. But when it came to more personal matters, he was far more reticent. As a result, reading what passes for an autobiography here is both fascinating and irritating. There are numerous magazine profiles about Thompson’s time in the Air Force, which include stories about his predictably catastrophic time there as well as memories of his time in jail on a robbery charge during the night of his high school graduation. At the age of 65, when most of his colleagues were taking stock and reflecting on their life, Thompson appears to have neither the focus nor the purpose to fully expose his soul. What’s left of his autobiography is merely a suggestion at what it may have become.
The Rum Diary (1998)
Hunter’s star only truly shone for a decade or so, and by the late 1970s, his work had began to lose its sparkling inventiveness, energy, and verve. Die-hard Thompson admirers may disagree. When it came to Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, he could only come on talk shows in an increasingly drunken state to speak about Nixon-era America with the same enthusiasm, skill, and humor. Before he took his own life in 2005, Thompson gave us one last glimpse of his legendary self, thanks to Johnny Depp. Depp discovered an unpublished novel Thompson authored in the late 1950s when he was just 22 while going through Hunter’s files.
The story is semi-autobiographical, but it’s a comical one about working for a failing newspaper in Puerto Rico, and it’s a fascinating look at the old-school hard drinking hacks as told by a man who declared himself to be, above all, a “Doctor of Journalism” to the end.