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Sunday, 23 August 2009

Review: Outlaw Journalist, William McKeen (2008)

In its details, this biography of one of the most significant journalists of the 20th century is outstanding. Coming from ignorance, as I did, I found the parts about his childhood and early writing life of great value. But the book suffers from this success.

The volume of detail is frankly overwhelming. McKeen has clearly worked very hard to assemble the greatest amount of information possible. But his writing suffers from his role as a journalist, a breed of writer that is frequently a tad too enthusiastic about cumulative data.

In tone, the early parts following childhood are tinged with fatigue, as Thompson struggles to get his writing published and put food on the table. Aggression produced as part of the struggle boils over into violence against his first wife, Sandy. McKeen is obviously saddened by this. He also sighs between the lines as he recounts Hunter's many infidelities. But this down-beat tone disappears when Hunter strikes success, in the 1980s. From then on, it's a whirlwind of activity as Hunter struggles against sloth and intransigent editors.

OK, so far so good. But what does a Hunter enthusiast who is largely ignorant of the contours of the writer's life take away from this book? The drugs are less interesting than the dedication to craft. This characteristic of Hunter is evident in the huge stash of 20,000 letters he preserved over a lifetime of frequent correspondence with friends and editors.

Then there's the essential thing about Hunter: he was always an outsider. As a boy, he got into trouble frequently. The tonic moment seems to have been when he outsmarted the authorities after toppling a mail bin in front of a milk truck. As a prank, it is both well thought-out and well executed. When confronted with the facts, however, Hunter denied culpability and when threatened with witnesses he asked "What witnesses?" He outsmarted the deputies. His luck ran out, however, when he and a group of friends robbed a pair of necking couples in a remote vehicle. They threatened to rape one of the girls if they didn't get the cash. The judge was stern and Hunter went to prison. When he got out he entered the Air Force.

In the Air Force, Hunter worked on the base paper as a sports writer, honing his early skills. But he couldn't stand authority and got an honourable discharge. There followed years of wandering, from Puerto Rico to Big Sur and San Francisco, chasing the dragon of fame. The Hell's Angels book launched him into it but it would be years before the money troubles disappeared.

Hunter on the university lecture circuit and Hunter with his endless string of girlfriends after divorcing Sandy is less interesting.

The book is clearly essential reading for enthusiasts, yet it is only a beginning. It gives you clues as to which other writers from the periods to read. It also helps you to understand a man who worked very hard and with single-minded effort toward attaining the recognition and fame that he felt, from a very early age, was his birthright.

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