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Monday, 17 August 2009

Review: The Great Shark Hunt, Hunter S Thompson (1979)

Edited by Thompson himself, the first volume of the Gonzo papers demonstrates the emergence of gonzo journalism, starting in the last years of the 1960s and the first years of the 1970s. To put it blankly, by 1972 he was gonzo. This may be moot to some but to me the appearance of this high-toned style is of seminal importance.

It takes more time to read the book than it does to read the Wikipedia page on Thompson, but it’s a lot more fun.

A few early markers of relevance stick out. These are the Hells Angels (1966) book, the articles on hippies and the beats, and an outrageously fantastic piece titled ‘Living in the Time of Alger, Greeley, Debs’ that sees Thompson driving around the Midwest talking to itinerant, casual construction laborers. It’s even better than the political pieces of 1973 to -74 on Watergate. It was published in 1964.

Thompson also published a number of pieces for the National Observer in 1963 and -64 that look at South America through the author’s particularly acute mental lens. But these are not gonzo. I want to make this clear because I think it is of importance to any enthusiast of gonzo. A piece published in 1970 by Scanlan’s Monthly titled ‘The Police Chief’ and signed Raoul Duke (“Master of Weaponry”) is, unequivocally, gonzo.

What had changed? I’ll need to read a longer biography to get a handle on it, but the task is not only tempting. It is essential for me to do this so that others can benefit from my work. It is a selfless task, but a necessary one.

Compare for example Thompson’s 1974 Playboy piece, and the title piece for this volume, ‘The Great Shark Hunt’ with the 1964 piece mentioned above.

In the former we find Thompson on a private gig to cover a big game fishing competition in Mexico. Naturally he doesn’t ‘cover’ the event in any way that is designed to satisfy his sponsor, a fishing boat manufacturer. Instead of getting involved in fishing he says how much he hates it, goes off to drink and take drugs with some of the locals, trashes his hire car, and then cuts out of the hotel without paying the bill. When he gets on the plane with his associate they find they have some drugs left and decide to do them before arriving in the US. The outcome is hilarious and entertaining. But this is not a straight piece of reporting.

The 1964 piece takes place in cars. Thompson drives around the Midwest picking up hitchhikers and finds that many are almost destitute. Some are on their way to work in another state. This is a straight piece of reporting, but with a distinct tone. Thompson sympathises with the men and tries to find grounds for common humanity to forge a link between them.

In his gonzo pieces, we see a similar effort to find common humanity but, on a small resort island in Mexico, Thompson, who admits in ‘When the Beatniks Were Social Lions’ (National observer, 1964) that he was a beatnik once, finds little in the way of common ground for a meaningful exchange of social capital. He feels isolated and resorts to drugs and alcohol as a result.

This, it seems to me, is the core of Thompson’s aesthetic. He used to be a beatnik, he gets involved in the hippy scene of San Fransisco (‘The “Hashbury" Is the capital of the Hippies’, New York Times Magazine, 1967), he sympathises with the Left (hates Nixon, likes Carter), he seeks some sort of isolation in the backwoods of Colorado, but he is drawn to modern America like a moth to a flame.

He seeks compensations for his essential ennui. It’s not just drugs. It’s also powerful guns, football, and politics. Because he’s a romantic fool for love he doesn’t play around with women, but remains largely faithful. It’s sort of like Quentin Tarantino with his movies. Thompson is a news junkie because it tells him something about his country and the world, both of which being places he feels some sense of connection with. He doesn’t just drop out, he tunes in, but there are filters in place that allow him to remain stable and healthy (spiritually) in the eye of the storm.

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