I first encountered Hunter Thompson’s writing in Hell’s Angels: The Strange And Terrible Saga Of California’s Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs , which I read when I was… 16, maybe? Which would have been 1979. A friend of a friend had a dog-eared and ratty paperback, which I borrowed, devoured, and never gave back.
I went looking for anything else by Thompson, which wasn’t easy, since he sure wasn’t in my high school library and the public library was still very much segregated, the children’s library with the bright primary colors and my beloved Heinlein in the basement and the intimidating grown-up books in the dark brooding stacks above.
Still, there was something… vivid in Thompson’s work. Hell’s Angels is pretty much straight reporting, it follows a definitive chronology, this happened and that happened, with names and dates and even a few footnotes. The form followed those boring non-fiction books that I only read when forced to. It was, on the surface, the kind of book that made good book reports, like The Story Of The First World War or The Development Of Legume Farming In Rural Spain.
Running through the facts and figures, however, there was a rich vein of dangerous high voltage energy, like a power line buried under a parking lot. It wasn’t just the subject matter–although that certainly helped–it was Thompson’s style, a sort of breathless intensity that kept you feeling that at any moment he was liable to veer off the road and say something utterly bugfuck.
And then I found Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, which starts with him veering off the road and then flooring it across the desert in The Great Red Shark. Again, though, it wasn’t so much what he said–a couple of guys get stoned and drive from LA to Vegas and freak out in some hotel rooms–it was that style. He had a genius for invoking the exact moment when you realize that the man across the bus aisle from you isn’t just a little odd, he’s a full blown raving lightbulb eating psychotic.
Can’t stop here–this is bat country. Thompson knew how to get through bat country–you over-inflate the tires, put down the top, roll up the windows, and put the pedal to the metal.
His was a unique voice in American letters, one that will never be heard again. He had a gift for capturing the edges of the world that no one else can match.
Unfortunately, we know this for a fact, because a lot of people tried. Much to my shame, I was one of them. Many writers start by trying to imitate their heroes, and I wrote a lot of Thompson pastiche, the kind of thing that you can’t just burn, you have to bury at a crossroads at midnight, with a stake through its heart. Bad? Words cannot describe.
Part of it, of course, was that I didn’t have the life experience that Thompson did. Riding in the back of a station wagon from Springfield, MO to Branson simply doesn’t prepare one to pen The Great Red Shark, Part II.
More importantly, though, I didn’t understand the imitative fallacy. Neither, unfortunately, do many of Thompson’s other self-adopted children in the writing world. By “imitative fallacy” I don’t mean trying to imitate another writer, either.
I mean trying to imitate a state of mind by writing about it while in that state of mind.
What made Thompson’s work so powerful is that he was, first and foremost, a journalist. Even as his most gonzo (and, unfortunately, as he got more popular his editors let him get away with work that they shouldn’t have) he kept in the back of his mind the rules of writing, the habits of observation, the 5 W’s and the H or whatever.
This is what happened. All writing (yes, even poetry) comes down to that statement. That’s why we write, to tell people what happened. It’s why we read, to find out what happened.
As a writer of fiction I tell stories that aren’t true, but that’s the deal I make with the reader. I am going to tell you what could have happened, and you’re going to pretend that it really did, at least for a few hours.
That means that whatever I am writing, I am still a journalist. Whatever else is going on in my head, there has to be that guy in the back with a PRESS tag stuck in the brim of his hat, looking though the glass of the phone booth, mumbling around an unfiltered Chesterfield, “Stop the presses, Chief, I got an exclusive!”
Which is why Thompson’s imitators fail. Because when you’re writing about what it feels like to be drunk, or stoned, or whatever, that guy in the back in the cheap suit has to keep sober. He’s taking notes, snapping pictures, dictating to the guys in the copy room. He’s covering the story–he can’t become the story.
Otherwise the reader isn’t going to know what happened, and there’s no reason to keep reading.
Thompson’s genius was that he could make the journalist invisible. The clarity of his descriptions could fool the reader into forgetting that there was somebody doing the describing. It’s like looking through a window that is so large and so clean that you start to believe that you’re really there.
That’s a skill, and the more I write the more I realize that it’s a damned difficult and impressive one. Like most people who are really good at what they do, Thompson made it look easy.