February 23, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson, RIP

Hunter S. Thompson, RIP -- I reread Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for about the 7th time a few months ago. I didn't see any reason to reassess my old judgment that it ranks with A Confederacy of Dunces as the most laugh-out-loud-funny American book of the second half of the 20th Century. As a work of prose style, it is an indisputable masterpiece.

I realized, though, that I had never noticed before that nothing much ever physically happens during the course of the book. Almost everything of interest is just going on inside Thompson's violent, paranoid mind. As a child, I was in Las Vegas perhaps the same week Thompson was, and we may even have been at Circus Circus the same night -- I remember the Korean Kittens trapeze act that he riffs on -- and I suspect that to bystanders his outward behavior wasn't all that much more outrageous than mine was.

UPDATE: Thompson and Tom Wolfe were always lumped together, but Thompson's journalism was almost always about what was going on inside his own head, while Wolfe, despite his trademark white suit, remained far in the background, seldom mentioned in his own work, except in coy lines like "Carol Doda turned toward a man in a Borsalino hat." As a sober, industrious, deeply sane man, Wolfe's career achievement towers over Thompson's, but Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas might be the best book either of them wrote.

Toward the end of Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe pointed out that the hippie movement of the 1960s had two sides to it: the vegetarian pacifist Maharishi meditation side and the All-American crank-it-up-to-400-horsepower and let's-take-this-show-on-road side of Ken Kesey, whose novels were heavily influenced by superhero comic books. Thompson, of course, with his love of Harley-Davidsons, Smith & Wessons, and the NFL (that's what Thompson and Nixon talked about during their one interview), came out of the tradition of All-American excess.

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