ROGUE MAIL ; He Found Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and on the Campaign Trail with Richard Nixon. So What Does Hunter S Thompson Make of the Florida Fiasco? Chris Heath Asks the Father of Gonzo Journalism about Politics, Pharmacology and His Scabrous New Volume of Letters, Extracts from Which Are Published Overleaf
Heath, Chris, The Independent (London, England)
Hunter S Thompson has had to cancel the book tour in support of his latest collection of letters, Fear & Loathing In America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968-1976. On his answering- machine at his home in Woody Creek, near Aspen, Colorado, he explains that he is ill, expresses his appreciation of the call and requests that "in lieu of money, all sympathy be expressed in the form of flowers... specifically orchids... roses... birds of paradise... small fruit trees..." The list of increasingly exotic horticultural items continues for quite some time. When Thompson eventually picks up the receiver, he ruefully reports that so far no fruit trees of any size have arrived, but he has only been home from the hospital for three days and remains hopeful. "If I don't get something, I'm going to reassess my schedule of friends," he says; adding, by way of clarification: "I'm an orchid fancier." He has had pneumonia, but is on the mend, and describes with some glee the medical apparatus - "a huge oxygen machine," as he characterises it - standing next to him. "A giant robot that follows me around," he says. "An oxygen concentrator. It creates oxygen out of the air... it's a wonderful-looking thing. It rolls, and it has dials, and bouncing balls, and levels, big warnings all over it about `Do not smoke or operate near an open flame.' Every time I reach for the Zippo, people kind of cry and move away..."
Thompson seems, none the less, to be in the finest of spirits. He reads to me a description of himself he has just discovered in an American magazine, quoting Time managing editor Walter Isaacson: "I think he's a very dangerous man. We're all afraid of him. He's irresponsible and reckless as a human being and so we all live in fear." Thompson cackles with pleasure; he knows a compliment when he hears one.
His new book of letters covers the years when he fully established his reputation for danger, irresponsibility and recklessness, primarily with his most famous book, Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, in which a thinly disguised Thompson and lawyer friend consume terrifying quantities and combinations of drugs as they search, none too carefully, for the American Dream. There's plenty in his letters to convince you that he was readily capable of anything he described in that book, though there's also a myth- piercing response to his editor's deduction (when sent part of the Las Vegas manuscript) that "it was absolutely clear to me... that you were not on drugs" - in which Thompson calmly confirms this (then immediately raves about a recent mescaline-fuelled weekend). Asked about this now, Thompson does offer a slight qualification. "I was never actually totally straight," he points out.
But anyone who is foolish enough to imagine Thompson as an off- his-head, half-crazed savant will be surprised at what he was writing to his friends, colleagues and enemies over these years. He is furious at one point at the suggestion that he has said what he writes is only 45 per cent true, and threatens legal action. Whatever stylistic devices he used, it mattered hugely to him that what he wrote should be believed. (There is, he now says, a connected side issue: "I'm lazy, basically. It's just less work to tell the truth rather than have to get involved with lies.") Although some of these letters are very funny (for instance, his indignant rant at the local TV station when they run an advertorial instead of Lassie) and many of them are very angry (he responds with nuclear strength to any perceived slight, and is endlessly furious about money), they are mostly the highly charged thoughts of a man who is extremely passionate about what he is doing. It is no accident that he saved his letters from a young age, taking a carbon copy of each and carefully guarding his collected correspondence even in the days when he had no money or success to speak of.
I ask him why, back then, he thought to save it. …