This weekend I wrote about how I though Jack Kerouac was overrated, and how many of his fans are some of the most annoying people imaginable. I might have done well to note that I say that after years of being one of those fans, although recently I’ve soured on him; I find most of his writing to bee too expository and his storytelling too simplistic. I think most people who find his work endearing these days are younger readers, those who wish they could just get up and go On the Road style even though that isn’t possible today what with the interstate highway system and the fact that only crazy people hitchhike. What people love is the idea of Jack Kerouac, not his writing. That got me thinking: what other writers do I like more than their writing?
The first name I could come up with was Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve loved Hunter for so long, probably beginning before I’d ever read a word of his writing. I saw the 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was probably thirteen or fourteen and just beginning to experiment with drinking and drugs. It really opened my mind to the world of hallucinogenic and perception altering substances. I think the first thing I read of his was “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” (take a minute to read the story if you havent; it really is fun) and I thought it was the coolest fuckin’ thing ever. I didn’t know people actually wrote about getting fucked up at horse races, fighting with police, playing with weapons, dropping acid, and saying fuck, shit, and faggot. I thought Hunter was a goddamn boss. And I was right.
After coming across information like this about Hunter on the internet, I really started to respect him as a genuine badass and crazy ass motherfucker. He was a self taught writer, allegedly having learned to write by copying The Great Gatsby word for word on his typewriter over and over again, analyzing the way Fitzgerald created such a great work. He ran for Sheriff of a county in Colorado just for shits and giggles. He owned an impressive collection of firearms. He showed open contempt for the government. In general, he seemed to do everything that a kid might think is cool.
But take a closer look. Thompson, as much as he openly reviled Nixon, was still allowed at the White House and to speak and have contact with the President. Nixon, a man who was notoriously insular and did everything possible to harm his enemies, spoke and joked with Thompson frequently, giving the journalist plenty of fodder for his articles and public statements.
Thompson claims to have been his usual drunken Gonzo self on the occasions he met Nixon and other public officials, yet I hardly think this was the case. Thompson was a well-known journalist and needed access to powerful people. I’m sure he behaved himself with some sort of decorum at official functions or he would have been dismissed as a clown, some sort of performance artist who took pride in disrupting the status quo, which is exactly what Thompson alleges to be.
If you read Thompson’s earlier work, the stuff he wrote pre-1970 before shifting the paradigm towards Gonzo journalism with the Kentucky Derby piece, most of it is rather tame. Sure, it’s New Journalism, but no crazier than Tom Woolfe. Thompson’s shenanigans don’t take center stage in Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, for example. Thompson created a pseudonym/persona, Raoul Duke, to distance himself from some of his crazier ideas and actions, but they became increasingly blurred and Thompson even said he felt pressured to live up to this semi-fictitious persona while maintaining a normal life. Thompson was an undoubtedly talented writer and sought after freelance journalist. In order to maintain some semblance of a career, he would have had to find some time to work in between hits of acid and lines of cocaine.
While not entirely similar, Thompson’s alter ego and public persona got me thinking of other celebrities who created alter egos for their art. First I thought of Madonna, but that crazy bitch has come to totally inhabit her alter ego, if it was ever even separate to begin with. I can see how kabbalism is an acceptable pastime for a post-menopausal woman, but shouting out “Who’s seen my friend molly” (molly is a slang term for MDMA) at an EDM concert is certainly unacceptable behavior for someone who’s turning 54 in a few months. It’s like she’s trying a little too hard to be the cool mom when she just needs to chill and act her age.
Maybe more apt a comparison to Hunter S. Thompson/Raoul Duke is Stefanie Germanotta/Lady Gaga. I’d be a liar if I said Gaga’s tunes weren’t catchy, but I’d also be a liar if I could claim that any sane person would wear a dress made out of meat to an awards show. Unlike Hunter, however, Lady Gaga is the careful creation of corporate marketing teams. She’s got strong pipes and good chops for sure, but she was still created by someone high up in the music industry in response to what he correctly believed was public demand.
So relax, fans of the late great Hunter S. Thompson. I’m not slandering your hero by claiming he’s a made up character like Lady Gaga. He might be a little made up, but at least he created his own persona out of some of his own behaviors and personal actions. He might not be the best novelist (The Rum Diaries really is a yawn) but he’s a good journalist and cool dude nonetheless.