Taste Test: Essential Hunter S. Thompson books

Here is the start of a new feature, where I compare and rank in order four things, from worst to first, that are similar enough to fall under one category. Basically, if you live in New England like me, and you’ve seen the show Phantom Gourmet, where they “taste test” steak sauces and cookies and other foods to see which is the best — well, that’s the same thing I’m doing here, except with music, and/or any other topic I see fit to cover.

Today’s topic: the Essential Top 4 Hunter S. Thompson books. First, a little background….

Basically, at one time, Hunter S. Thompson was my favorite writer, although as I have aged I have noticed that I am reading his books less and less — this was probably not intentional, but as time wore on, his works progressively seemed more and more half-finished, which is something that might appeal to a younger generation, to the point where his final book (Hey Rube) is nothing more than a sprawling collage of Thompson-isms and repeated quotes. But it’s undeniable that the man’s catalog, as a whole, is unique — just the fact that Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, which in some respects, amounts to nothing more than two back-to-back party runs from L.A. to Vegas, is now required reading for American Lit students, is somewhat unbelievable.

The cool thing about Thompson is he was the embodiment of every free lance journalist’s dream, by making the mainstream come to him, in effect, with his loony outsider approach. He was your free-spirited, drink and drug-addled, gambling-addicted uncle — you know, the cool uncle (each family seems to have at least one), who seemingly did whatever he wanted, and got away with it. This, of course, eventually caught up with Hunter, in more ways than one, pretty much trapping him in that Fear And Loathing/sketch-piece mold as far as his writing style went, so that his output after the early 70’s was really nothing more than collections of assorted newspaper articles and/or his prodigious habit of letter writing (or, in the case of Better Than Sex, a collection of angry faxes).

And, as Hunter himself said so many times, “and so much for all of that”. This list is really nothing more than a short one on what I think are the essential pieces of the HST collection — not that I hate anything else he wrote (at most, I have a slight dislike for Hey Rube), but these are the must-read books, for any casual fan looking to broaden his horizons HST-style.

4) Hell’s Angels (1966)

This was not really Thompson’s first official book — that honor goes to The Rum Diary, which went unpublished until the late 90’s — but Hell’s Angels was the first one to get published, and gather national exposure, although the general tone is noticeably different than later works. Hell’s Angels was more along the lines of journalistic expose, as Thompson “hung out” with the Oakland chapter of the gang for around a year, trying to get at the psyche and motivation behind the biker/outlaw lifestyle. This is not boring or uninteresting in the least, just different, because it’s intended to be more scholarly, although I do have to say that Hell’s Angels should never be your first Thompson read — it’s almost better to start with the “Gonzo” stuff, and then work your way back to this more-normal volume of non-fiction.

Although the story of Hell’s Angels as being public menaces seems very dated nowadays (in the mid-60’s this was a much bigger deal), you do get a general sense that not only does the author, in some ways, connect with the club’s outsider lifestyle, but he also correctly points out that the bikers are just the first wave of malcontents eating away at the edges of our society, foreshadowing gang warfare that started in the 70’s and 80’s.

3) The Great Shark Hunt (1979)

The first in the “Gonzo Papers” series is the best, in my opinion, providing a roughly equal mix of Gonzo and pre-Gonzo articles for consumption. In fact, the title article, which chronicled a “vacation” to Mexico, is on some levels, even crazier and funnier than Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas ever was, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as there are many excellent pieces to choose from, including an article about Super Bowl 8 (which was loosely portrayed in the movie Where The Buffalo Roam), a whole volume of classic/angry Watergate-era screeds on the Nixon adminstration, and the initial Gonzo article, The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved.

If you’re wondering about the other Gonzo Papers, volume 2 is basically a collection of columns Thompson wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, volume 3 plays out much like Great Shark Hunt, but with far more disjointed pieces, and volume 4 (Better Than Sex) was essentially a book of reactionary faxes to various Democratic Party members and Rolling Stone writers, throughout the early 90’s. All of the above range from decent to very good, but somehow, contain not much of the magic surrounding the first volume.

2) Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail ‘72 (1973)

On certain days, I really think Campaign Trail ‘72 is a more multi-faceted, and therefore, a more truthful piece of “Gonzo” than Las Vegas, but it’s hard to argue with the indifference of those not so politically inclined (although, part of the reason to read an HST book in the first place is an interest in politics). So while it may have less overall appeal, Campaign Trail ‘72 is brilliant, a mix of the hard-boiled journalism of Hell’s Angels with unfettered Gonzo rants — for example, check out the “October” section, where Hunter mails in a classic screed against Nixon and what was, to him, an apatheic political climate, which obviously is a timely and timeless message.

Basically, Hunter covered the entire ‘72 Presidential campaign, including all the primaries and both conventions, and despite his usual weird tangents, he manages to describe the detailed ins and outs of political maneuvering, and does it on a layman’s level, so it’s continously informative and entertaining. Early on, Thompson gets drawn into the ill-fated George McGovern campaign, so his commentary is biased, but he writes about it so well the blatant favoritism doesn’t take away from the quality of the book.

In the end, Campaign Trail ‘72 is not just a great piece of Gonzo journalism, but it should be required reading for all those with any sort of political inclanations.

1) Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1971)

In the end, Las Vegas has to occupy the top spot on this list, doesn’t it? Nothing but a cult favorite when it first came out, the legend has slowly grown, and become ingrained into mainstream culture, as the last remaining relic from the idealistic 60’s, even though the point of the book was about how those ideals had been destroyed and/or sold up the river, or even gambled away in Las Vegas.

This is the one place where all the disjointed, stitched-together magic of Gonzo, which had been hinted at so well in the Kentucky Derby piece, was on full display, sort of like a great team playing its’ best game in the Super Bowl. The language itself is something to behold, almost as if the intention was to write something where possibly every sentence written would be memorable. It is, like most great pop albums, relatively short in that high on quality control, low on filler sense.
(via uponfurthurreview)

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