A fun part of creating an archive for the Gonzo Arts is a constant exposure barbaric hilarity, strange unknown stories and rejuvenation of tattered spirits. It is the last part that keeps the show on the road.
In researching the vast amount of book reviews I thought it best to document the various reviews in posts, using tags and labels to keep them organized. In effect I’ll be reviewing reviews, which may sound odd but I hope these review-reviews will help researchers, fun people, and various other loons in their endeavors.
The first book review-review, entitled Eerie times for oddballs; Songs of the Doomed: Gonzo Papers Vol 3 by Hunter S Thompson.
The piece was written by William Leith and published in The Independent on Sunday October 13, 1991.
Who is Mr. William Leith? I am glad you asked.
Unlike most other one-handed writers, however, it was clear that Leith’s columns were almost as hard-won as any under-fire war report. They were, mostly, survivor’s tales, the best of them crafted with wonderful comic reserve out of the persistent anxiety and sporadic wreckage of his life. Before it became routine, he made all of his readers rubber-neckers, slowing down for a few moments to survey the quiet damage of the writer’s days. For a while I worked as his editor, and well remember the unsettling compulsion of receiving any given week’s copy: his discovery of pubic crabs, say, all told in his perfect, mesmerising Janet and John sentences.
William was a curious, entertaining presence in the office. Always full of puzzling stories, he wore the scars of his battles. His clothes, in various shades and layers of black and grey, were invariably food stained (a fact which he explains now by his habit of licking plates clean of gravy); the buttons of shirts and jackets tended to work at their limits; he sometimes carried a large plastic bag with him full of bills from the previous year or two that he had not been able to bring himself to open. Moreover, at times, he had that kind of pallor, both clammy and florid beneath straggly stubble, that told of lost weekends and sleepless nights; behind owlish glasses and under his bed-head of black hair he frequently looked as if he had just woken up fully clothed in unfamiliar surroundings and wandered in by accident. On one occasion I recall he sat down at his desk with his hand inexpertly bandaged and seeping blood: a domestic argument – there were always domestic arguments – had ended in some convoluted way with a stabbing. He had put his hand in the way of more vital organs, he explained; about all of which he, of course, was now preparing to write.
People who knew him better than I did would tell stories of long nights out with William, of infamous occasions where he had disappeared with communal grams of cocaine and returned to announce that he had snorted the lot. Others, whose sofas often entertained Leith’s slumbering form, would wake in the morning to find drinks cupboards and fridges emptied: ‘I didn’t mind the bottles of port and the scotch,’ one friend recalls, ‘but he would eat all the cheese in the house, too, anything he could find.’ These tales of excess had a kind of shadow life. After he left I adopted his old telephone number; until recently I was still getting occasional calls from debt collectors or video shops or dry cleaners wondering if Mr Leith will be returning 1997’s films or picking up 1999’s shirts. If you believe the notion that everyone has a book that they were born to write, William Leith’s is undoubtedly The Hungry Years. Subtitled ‘The Confessions of a Food Addict’, it is a wonderfully inventive, typically candid account of a life lived through consumption (of carbohydrates and sugar and sex and drink and drugs and painkillers). More than that, though, it is a sustained examination of the way we live now, a desperate and funny despatch from the front line of binge culture.
And it is highly suggested to read more by this author http://www.spectator.co.uk/author/william-leith/.
Anyway, back to the book review-review…
Eerie times for oddballs; Songs of the Doomed: Gonzo Papers Vol 3 points out issues of Gonzo Journalism, which I think are not controversial among fans.
As with all his writing, which he calls ”Gonzo Journalism”, he knows the story because the story is himself. His project, as a journalist, is to get involved with the people and events he is covering, usually psyching himself up with drugs, so that he can get an intimate grasp on his subjects. When he wrote Hell’s Angels, he practically became one; for his best political book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, he got involved with politicians, eventually running for Mayor in Aspen. His most celebrated book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is his purest Gonzo project to date, being a story about Thompson, cranked up to a point of near-insanity on a cocktail of drugs, simply charging about and recording his impressions.
Gonzo Journalism’s pedigree comes from New Journalism (I suggest reading The new journalism by Tom Wolfe, get it at the library or pick it up cheap), which is known for being written in a first person and concerned with the subjective truth over the objective, and self-conscious style of modernist literature. Those two factoids on literary pedigree seem to be missing in many reviews aside from the aforementioned. As for naughty substances, that has long been the province of our evolution.
As a form of journalism, Gonzo is surprisingly successful – taking drugs and plunging to the heart of the story is a lot better than sitting in an office quoting people who are paid to lie, which is what most journalists do – and this collection is a history of Thompson’s development. The earliest pieces, ”Prince Jellyfish” from 1959, and ”Rum Diary”, from 1962, are billed as fiction, and seem rather clumsy, being simply descriptions of crazy losers Thompson used to mix with in New York and San Juan. But you can see Thompson learning how to lace his ranting with understatement.
The notion of surprise seems a bit off. Commercially, HST appears like an easy sell. He is funny if you find his kind of funny, funny. As for the artistic lacing of ranting with understatement, that is a good call. One of the more sneaky literary talents of HST is the pacing of the madness, the ebb and flow between sober (sometimes somber, often poetic) analyses and the maelstrom of madness.
There are two problems with the Gonzo style. The drugs have an inconsistent effect – at first Thompson uses them to escape reality, but after a while they lose their intensity. Also, reality itself begins to change shape – as Thompson points out, it’s pretty hopeless trying to be an investigative journalist when you’re a notorious loon. And, eventually, the cops close in. In early 1990, Thompson was charged with unlawful possession of controlled substances and sexual assault, charges which were eventually dropped. Unfortunately, the book was already going to press at the time, so all we get here are a few court documents. ”These are ugly things to read over morning coffee, but these are eerie times,” writes Thompson. The eerie thing for Thompson, one feels, is that these days most of the coffee is decaffeinated.
Leith’s point seems beyond biological tolerance, the drug fueled intense expansion of consciousness that allowed for the articulation of vivid non-linear descriptions in the first person participatory narrative style (that we have all come to know and love) is ultimately an inconsistent source with inconsistent effect. There is only so many times one can go to any well, especially the more precarious ones. And there is no way of knowing how things are going to go, which is a point few would argue.
The drug element, is a tricky subject in Gonzo Journalism, in the larger picture they are not necessary for Gonzo and certainly not sufficient. Leith does frame this idea in his review.
IN ONE of the many hideously funny stories in this collection, the author wonders what it would feel like to go to the lavatory in the middle of the night and find a severed pig’s head wedged into the bowl, staring up at you, its dead eyes jammed open. He visualises ”realising after not many seconds that there is something basically wrong with the noise that normally happens when you piss into a bowl full of water in the middle of the night, and feeling the splash of warm urine on your knees because it is bouncing off the lipstick-smeared snout of a dead pig’s head that is clogging up your toilet . . .”.
Thompson is imagining this because there actually is a dead pig’s head wedged into a lavatory bowl in the motel where he is staying, and he also knows that one of three people will be surprised by it – the owner of the motel, the ”evil drunken bastard” Lloyd Good, his wife, or his young son. Thompson is a journalist, this is a good human interest story, and he has got right to the heart of it. Rather than picking up the crumbs of a story after it has happened, this journalist has the acumen to be on the scene beforehand, for the build-up. ”We are not talking about jokes here; we are talking about Crazy Ugly, real malice, terrible shock and weeping for a 50-year-old lady or a 13-year-old child, people screaming out of control at a sight too vile to see.”
The reduction of HST’s journalism to drug fueled gibberish is to be expected by the humorless dullards. The extreme element of Gonzo, the mixture of surprise, terror, and humor somehow channeled and crafted into art, there lays the mastery and only recognized by those with true grit and the right eyes.