Although labeled “Dr. Gonzo,” this Ralph Steadman illustration actually depicts Raoul Duke, a.k.a. Hunter S. Thompson.
When I started this screed almost two months ago, I had no idea that it would absorb all my writing energy, if not my life, for so long… but here we are, it’s a cool day in October, the days are getting noticeably shorter, and in some ways I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. But fuck it, sooner or later this thread is going to have to be terminated to make room for whatever comes next. There are just a few loose ends I feel obligated to tie up first.
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In examining what makes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas tick, I omitted for simplicity’s sake one factor that I would be remiss in not mentioning: the contribution of Ralph Steadman, the illustrator. It just wouldn’t have been the same book without his depictions of Raoul Duke, Dr. Gonzo, and the various Vegas citizens, cops, and lizards that they enounter in the course of their adventures.
And above and beyond that, he contributed the distinctive crude lettering and the weird ink blotches that occur throughout the book, sometimes obscuring bits of text and adding a unique element of chaos. This is why no version of Fear and Loathing in any other medium has ever been quite satisfying… it was meant to be a book and should be left that way (with all due respect to Mr. Gilliam).
In contrast to “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” or The Curse of Lono, Steadman is not a character in Fear and Loathing, just the artist — a fact over which he apparently harbors some resentment, because in the film Breakfast with Hunter, filmed 30 years later, he is seen complaining to Thompson about not being invited along on the Vegas trip. Even so, the two remained friends until the Doctor’s death, which is fairly remarkable given that Thompson tended to drag Steadman along on stories that turned out to be twisted, drunken nightmares.
Their friendship was based, I think, on a similar way of looking at the world, which you can see in their work. Both were very highly attuned to the horror all around them, and took a perverse pride in having such insight into the true nature of things. Thompson put it this way:
There’s an element of reality, even in Ralph’s most grotesque drawings. He catches things. Using a sort of venomous, satirical approach, he exaggerates the two or three things that horrify him in a scene or situation… And you can say that these people didn’t look exactly like that, but when you can look at them again it seems pretty damn close. All the cops in the Vegas hotel lobby are wearing the same plaid Bermuda shorts, and they’re uglier than any group of mutants you’d see at a bad insane asylum — you know, for the criminally insane. But I look back at that scene and I know they weren’t much different, really. They had on different colored shirts and they weren’t all crazy and dangerous-looking — but he caught the one or two distinguishing characteristics among them: the beady eyes, burr haircuts, weasel teeth, beer bellies. If you exaggerate those four characteristics, you get a pretty grisly drawing….
If Thompson and Steadman accomplished one thing in their work together, it was to make us see many awful truths that otherwise might have escaped us. Which is not pleasant, but often necessary. And those of us who are interested in carrying on that work ought to be taking a long, hard, unflinching look at the horrors around us — not to wallow in them, but to recognize them and hopefully know how to deal with them. In the wake of the Bush administration’s latest fuckups, it seems that many new sets of eyes are being opened to the true nature of that particular band of swine, and after five years of national shame there may again be reason for hope.
* * *
In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile — and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely. We owe that to ourselves and our crippled self-image as something better than a nation of panicked sheep… but we owe it especially to our children, who will have to live with our loss and all its long term consequences. I don’t want my son asking me, in 1984, why his friends are calling me a “Good German.”
– HST, 1971
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As a sometime student of history I’ve never been comfortable with the notion that history repeats himself, but even so I had to admit that 2004 felt a lot like 1972, when America re-elected a morally crippled president in full knowledge of what it was doing, sending all right-thinking people into a spiralling depression. Course I was only five years old back then, and my knowledge is second-hand, but I think the point stands; so if last year was 72, that makes this 1973, when the tide turned, and many chickens began the return trip home to the roost. This may be why many of the Doctor’s words seem relevant in the context of 2005.
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At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles — a restless idealism on the one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other — that kept me going.
—The Rum Diary
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At one point I raised but never really adressed the question, “What is Gonzo journalism, really?” The answer, I think, is really quite simple, as expressed in this quote from Paul Perry’s Thompson biography:
Hunter has tried to describe Gonzo many times, but his most succinct answer to the question “what is Gonzo?” is, “Gonzo is what I do.”
Fact is, there only ever was one Gonzo journalist, and there will never be another one.
Which reminds me, I recently came across an Onion story from March entitled “National Gonzo Press Club Vows to Carry on Thompson’s Work.” It’s ruthlessly funny in the patented Onion style, but also a heartfelt tribute in its own way, and well worth a read.
Meanwhile, Rolling Stone recently published what appear to be Dr. Thompson’s real last words, in the form of a note he left for his wife Anita four days before he died.
Football Season Is Over
No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt
But that’s pretty much of a bummer, and no note to close on. I prefer this Thompson philosophy from another time:
I have learned to live, as it were, with the idea that I will never find peace and happiness. But as long as I know I can get my hands on either one of them once in a while, I do the best I can between high spots.
I’ve always loved that quote, and I think I understand it more and more with every passing year. We always think we’re going to reach that Promised Land: final truth, enlightenment, closure, total happiness or perfect art. Well, forget it; it’s not going to happen, and even if it did, it would only last for a fleeting moment and then things would start changing again.
The Doctor was fond of this quote from Joseph Conrad: “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”
Translation: Tomorrow is not promised to us; do what you can today.
And, OK, if things go south on us, if today turns out to be fucked, maybe there will be a tomorrow. We can certainly hope so. But the point is, we took our best shot at today.
He was also fond of this quote from Henry James, which seems like a good place to leave off: “We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.”
No way I can say it better than that.