Monday, January 16, 2006

On Originality

My family -- the ones in preceeding generations, anyway -- aren't exactly fond of my Gonzo fist tattoo, which means I'm occasionally called upon to act as an apologist for both tattooing and for the work of Hunter S. Thompson, "gonzo" journalist and political provocateur. These times usually emerge when I've had too much to drink or have decided to wear short sleeves.

We'll leave the tattoo issue aside for now. My mother has dismissed Thompson's writing -- she once read a random paragraph from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- as "pornography," and my father is less than impressed with the writer's involvement in the 1972 George McGovern campaign (as well as appearances at Thompson's home in Woody Creek, Colo., by democratic party bigwigs including, infamously, John Kerry).

So it's hard to explain to them that Thompson's work is luminary, not only in his usage of narrator/participant-style story-telling, but also in his usage of the English language. If you can stomach the foul language and casual usage of heavy drugs, Thompson's prose is more reminiscent of Hemingway, Kerouac, and Steinbeck than it is the editoral staff of "High Times."

It's a shame that this fact is lost not only on my parents, but on the majority of Thompson "fans" who are posting "gonzo screeds" on the Internet as fast as they can get their hands on a hit of speed. Just as my family is prone to focusing on the wrong elements of Thompson's life, so too are the legion of imitators who are hurriedly trying to take up the Gonzo mantle for themselves.

In a recent telephone conversation I had with a friend of mine, we spoke at length about would-be professional comedians who have failed miserably -- either at success or at being funny -- thanks to their insistence on emulation of their comedy heroes. One example we discussed at length was comedian-turned-actor Denis Leary, whose seminal album "No Cure for Cancer" spawned a host of angry, beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking imitators.

None of them were funny, because each insisted on copying the wrong elements of Leary's act -- the anger, the beer, and the cigarettes. While each of these figures prominently into Leary's presentation, they are merely accidental qualities of a character he has cultivated to help the audience identify with his on-stage persona; to wit, a blue-collar wiseacre with almost instinctual Boston-bred street smarts. The audience may never have even met such a character in real life, but the critical fact is that they can identify Leary's character as this archetypical persona, and therefore can accept his sometimes outrageous comic claims as "going with the territory."

Whether or not Leary's on-stage persona reflects his real-life self is irrelevant as far as his act is concerned. When he's at home, he could very well be a meek, gentle family man. The point is that whether he is or not does not affect the character he projects while performing.

The same goes for Thompson. Drug-legalization advocates think of Thompson as a cause-celebre, and aspiring writers -- myself included, at least during one phase of my development -- try to adopt his apocalyptic vocabulary by sprinkling their confessorial rants with words like "beasts" and "doom." (It's worth noting tangentially that among his varied influences, Thompson cited the Book of Revelation prominently.)

Looking around for Thompson fanatics on the Internet will unearth some of the most insufferable writing available... second-year college students who think a handful of speed and a fresh Word document are all that stands between them and cult-hero status. They take the opening chapter of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas not as literature and narrative art, but more as an instructional manual:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers... Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
What such would-be imitators miss, however, is passages further along in the book, as well as the main purpose of the story itself. For example, when Thompson's main character, Raoul Duke, reminisces about the 1960s drug boom and hippie movement, he realizes the ultimate futility of it all:
And that, I think, was the handle--that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting--on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark--that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
It's clear from Thompson's letters around the time (available in Fear and Loathing in America, the second collected anthology of his personal correspondence) that what he set out to do with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was to write about what he called the "death of the American dream." The idea was that the westward boom of American "manifest destiny" that sent Steinbeck's Okies to California had finally culminated and died on the beaches of Big Sur and the squalid apartments and slums of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district -- a fact that was made abundantly clear to Thompson by the 1972 election of President Richard Nixon. To Thompson, this was the touchstone that made him realize that the hippies and peaceniks and "freak power" supporters really were freaks -- freaks unwanted and unloved by the rest of America, who had settled down in their homes east of San Andreas into the peaceful and voluntary servitude described in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

It would be an easy matter to go on at length and defend Thompson's thesis, but the fact essential at the moment is that the drugs, the vocabulary, and the lifestyle were all accidental qualities of Thompson the writer. This is why any attempt to "be like HST" by consuming psychedelics and writing like a '60s version of St. John will inevitably fail. Without some strong basis to start with, such ramblings come off exactly as they are: boring monologues by directionless drug-users who are momentarily fascinated by the possibilities that exist within the human fingernail.

But Thompson can be a genuine inspiration to writers. His great accomplishment was to take his influences -- Hemingway, Kerouac, and St. John's Apocalypse -- and to refuse to try to synthesize or bastardize them. He wrote with a unique voice, as a character in his own stories. And his personal involvement in his work is similar to Leary's character projection on-stage. Whether his appearances in his narratives have anything to do with the way the Real Hunter S. Thompson behaved or spoke has nothing to do with the validity of value of the story itself. He exists not only as the chronicler but also as provocateur, as an essential driving force in the aspect of the story he's telling. And somehow, through the use of brilliant description and narration, he's able to speak volumes about the specific moment in history his character (or that of Raoul Duke, his "alter-ego") finds himself in.

It's not the drugs, kids, it's the originality. Only Hunter S. Thompson could ever have written Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it would be a crime for anyone else to try to write a sequel.

UPDATE: Open Post at the Mudville Gazette.