Review – Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968 – 1976 (Fear and Loathing Letters, Vol. 2)

Continuing from The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955-1967 (Fear and Loathing Letters, Vol 1), Fear and Loathing in America is entertaining, interesting and at times, scathing. It showcases Thompson’s bizarre sense of humour, his desire to communicate ‘on a human level’ as he puts it, and his unfailing sense of civil liberty. It illustrates the personality already established in the public mind with letters ranging from missives fired off to sub-par clothing merchandisers, to back and forths in his complex relationship with Oscar Acosta, but it also feels like something is missing.

Fear and Loathing In America is an interesting case study in answering the important editorial question of what to include and what to leave out, as vital in non-fiction as fiction. Thompson is most famous for his wild, hallucinatory, seemingly drug fueled tales like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and as a pioneering figure of Gonzo journalism. Reading through the second volume of his letters, arguably Thompson’s most famous years, you see plenty of Dr. Gonzo. You also begin to see glimpses of a different man. You soon find yourself asking a question many have wondered about H.S.T. – ‘Is he really like that?’

It’s hard to tell from the book. The primary bulk of the letters reassert the image of Thompson as a drug and drink fuelled chaotic tornado, obsessed with politics, guns and music. Other letters show snippets of Thompson’s character that make you wonder which aspects of the man are hiding in the remaining, unpublished correspondence.

1973, for instance, begins with a short note from Thompson’s young son, Juan, thanking him for his advice on being popular among other kids in Aspen. There’s no suggestion of what the advice might have been, or Thompson’s reply. Earlier, three-year old Juan received a letter from Thompson, who was homesick in L.A. Juan obviously can’t read it, but Thompson writes it anyway, for Sandy to read out to him. These are among the only small flashes shown of Thompson’s relationship with his son.

Letters to his wife are similarly non-existent, and references to her in other letters run from cases of Thompson annoying her (waking her in the middle of the night to find a book) to caring (taking her on a belated ‘honey-moon’ extravaganza after a miscarriage).

Thompson, for his part, does his best to maintain his public image, trying to keep the dual facets of serious journalist and high, wild outlaw from conflicting. Some letters find him fighting libel suits about the truthfulness of his writing. Others find him asking his Random House editor, Jim Silberman, to keep the fact he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas sober under his hat.

In the last year of the volume, 1976, you begin to see the other Thompson more clearly – a slightly plain, sometimes melancholy Thompson, who eschews bravado. In one ‘letter’, a reflection not addressed to anyone, he writes of the joy he finds in swimming in the middle of the night and the peace and solitude it brings him. It’s bordering on a mindfulness practice. In a letter to Silberman, he’s highly reflective about what the last decade meant for him and where he’s going next as an artist. In a draft introduction to The Great Shark Hunt, he calmly discusses his surprise at making it past the age of twenty-seven.

With twenty-thousand letters to choose from and an established audience for Thompson’s Gonzo journalism, you can easily imagine and understand why the letters tend to reinforce the perception of Thompson as a real, live Raoul Duke. Douglas Brinkley, in the editor’s introduction, explains that some of the letters left out were of an intense personal nature between Thompson, Sandy and Juan. This seemingly new criteria for inclusion didn’t apply to The Proud Highway, where letters of his and Sandy’s burgeoning relationship were readily included. Reading the reflective Thompson, and knowing what appeared in the previous volume, you begin to wonder what else might have been axed to cement the legend of Hunter Thompson.

Whether this other Thompson might make more of an appearance in The Mutineer: Rants, Ravings, and Missives from the Mountaintop 1977-2005 (Fear and Loathing Letters Vol. 3), is unclear and the chances of finding out seem slim. Originally slated for a 2010 release, the book has yet to see publication, allegedly due to the sensitivity of the content.

A must have for any H.S.T. fan, Thompson’s entertaining correspondence won’t shake your core perception of who he is, but it might give you the impression that there’s more to the man than his myth. It’s an insight into the days and deals that built the myth of the Doctor of Gonzo Journalism, as much as it leaves you pondering the man behind the title.

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