One of Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for The Curse of Lono.
Dr. Thompson’s most criminally underappreciated book is The Curse of Lono, which was published in 1983 (not, as I said yesterday, in 1980 — though it was almost entirely written in 1980, so I’m not docking myself any points for the error). For my money, this was the Doctor’s last substantial work of genius — although, having bypassed some of the later books, I could end up having to revise that opinion at some point in the future.
Like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Curse of Lono begins with Thompson accepting a magazine assignment to cover a sporting event, in this case the 1980 Honolulu Marathon. The Marathon ends up as one chapter in the book, albeit a quite interesting and thoughtful one, with the Doctor offering his unique insights into the sport of running:
Marathon running, like golf, is a game for players, not winners. That is why Wilson sells golf clubs, and Nike sells running shoes. The Eighties will not be a healthy decade for games designed only for winners — except at the very pinnacle of professional sport; like the Super Bowl, or the Heavyweight Championship of the World. The rest of us will have to adjust to this notion, or go mad from losing. Some people will argue, but not many. The concept of victory through defeat has already taken root, and a lot of people say it makes sense. The Honolulu Marathon was a showcase example of the New Ethic. The main prize in this race was a gray T-shirt for every one of the four thousand "Finishers." That was the test, and the only ones who failed were those who dropped out.
There was no special shirt for the winner, who finished so far ahead of the others that only a handful of them ever saw him until the race was long over...and not one of them was ever close enough to [Duncan] McDonald, in those last two miles before the finish, to see how a real winner runs.
The other five or six or seven or eight thousand entrants were running for their own reasons...and this is the angle we need, the raison d'etre as it were....Why do these buggers run? Why do they punish themselves so brutally, for no prize at all? What kind of sick instinct would cause eight thousand supposedly smart people to get up at four in the morning and stagger at high speed through the streets of Waikiki for 26 ball-busting miles in a race that less than a dozen of them have the slightest chance of winning?
These's no sane reason at all for these runners. Only a fool would try to explain why four thousand Japanese ran at top speed past the USS Arizona, sunken memorial in the middle of Pearl Harbor, along with another four or five thousand certified American liberals cranked up on beer and spaghetti and all taking the whole thing so seriously that only one in two thousand could even smile at the idea of a 26-mile race featuring four thousand Japanese that begins and ends within a stone's throw of Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1980....
Thirty-nine years later. What are these people celebrating? And why on this bloodstained anniversary?
It was a weird gig in Honolulu, and it is ever weirder now. We are talking, here, about a thing with more weight than we know. What looked like a paid vacation in Hawaii has turned into a nightmare - and at least one person has suggested that we may be looking at the Last Refuge of the Liberal Mind, or at least the last thing that Works.
Run for your life, sport, because that's all you have left. The same people who burned their draft cards in the Sixties and got lost in the Seventies are now into running. When politics failed and personal relationships proved unmanageable; after McGovern went down and Nixon exploded right in front of our eyes...after Ted Kennedy got Stassenized and Jimmy Carter put the fork to everybody who ever believed anything he said about anything at all, and after the nation turned en masse to the atavistic wisdom of Ronald Reagan.
Well, these are, after all, the Eighties and the time has finally come to see who has teeth, and who doesn't.... Which may or may not account for the odd spectacle of two generations of political activists and social anarchists finally turning - twenty years later - into runners.