An even-handed look at a wild-eyed persona
August 8, 2008
“Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson” opens on a fearsome note. In the preface, biographer William McKeen gives a first-person account of being woken by a middle-of-the-night phone call in February 2005 with the news from an acquaintance: “Hunter’s dead. He killed himself tonight.”
What gives a chill here isn’t that Thompson is deceased; the Woody Creek icon apparently predicted, often, that his demise would come well before the age of 67. Even if you hadn’t heard him make these pronouncements, seeing Thompson in action or simply hearing of his exploits would lead one to conclude that 67 was more than his allotment of life. Nor is it any surprise, given his fondness for guns and violence, that Thompson would be terminated by his own hand.
What threatens the reader is the prospect of 350-plus pages of a Gonzo-style approach to the subject at hand: a scattered, forceful rant on journalism with as much focus on McKeen as on Thompson. As the inventor of Gonzo, Thompson did it well, sometimes; others have done a decent job of it as well, but the idea of handling Thompson’s life in the style is just tiresome.
McKeen sets out on a treacherous path, recounting episodes of his friendship with Thompson, how “Hunter” is a one-name reference in his house, the shot of Wild Turkey he downed in Thompson’s honor when he heard of the suicide.
But the preface ends quickly, and when it does, McKeen gets down to the business one would expect of a journalism professor (at the University of Florida). “Outlaw Journalist” is meticulous, devoutly chronological and detailed. It comes with a decided point of view ” that Thompson was far more a serious, important and, when inspiration hit, uniquely talented journalist than a drunken-and-drugged clown. But McKeen’s perspective is balanced; he doesn’t fawn or overlook Thompson’s flaws, too numerous to list here.
McKeen seems to realize that, given the facts of Thompson’s existence, little exaggeration or writerly flamboyance is required. Given how Thompson made mince-meat of presidential candidates ” he once reported on a rumor, that he also started, about 1972 Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie being addicted to a mysterious Brazilian drug, ibogaine ” it’s best to simply tell the story and get out of the way.
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“Outlaw Journalist” does a fine job of connecting the dots. He teases out of Thompson’s upbringing in Louisville, Ky. ” lower-middle-class himself, but tenuously connected to the city’s more privileged and intellectually curious circles ” the outsider status that would serve Thompson in his career. The portrait created of the adult Thompson feels appropriately complex: He was fiercely devoted to the American ideals of liberty and justice, but despised the system that was supposed to ensure them. He was a slave to the image he created even as he tried to embody it. He loved words and ideas as much as he loved booze, LSD, guns and cheating on his wife.
And, having bought into the idealism of the ’60s, Thompson was passionate about journalism. He witnessed the decline from the days when journalists helped bring down Nixon, but still he believed in the power of words. McKeen recalls Thompson telling him, “I am a journalist, and I’ve never met … any tribe I’d rather be a part of or that are more fun to be with ” in spite of the various punks and sycophants of the press.”
As such, Thompson might have admired this book. He might have even taken back what he once wrote to McKeen: “You are scum.”