David S. Wills - 'High White Notes - The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism'

David S. Wills - 'High White Notes - The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism'


The cover for David S. Wills's 'High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism'

I can’t put my finger on this book. Its start made me fear it’s patchwork, the result of reading interviews and conducting unstructured Internet digging, just gluing it all together in the end. It’s more than that. Its title says a lot: this is a roller-coaster ride through Hunter S. Thompson’s writing and how he not only evolved and devolved, but how he created gonzo, a journalistic style that’s almost entirely about style and imagination, not fact.

Even though this book, as the author points out, contains a lot of ‘implied’ and ‘claimed’, there is analysis to weigh that up. The author goes through many of Thompson’s ways of writing, albeit not very deeply.

Being a student allowed him access to the Columbia University library, where he was able to continue his literary education through borrowing classic and contemporary novels. He became obsessed with Sherwood Anderson’s Wineburg, Ohio and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. However, undoubtedly the most important book that Thompson read in New York was J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. This novel helped permanently shape his writing and, to some extent, his lifestyle.

The Ginger Man features some typical Hunter Thompson language like “lousy bastard” and “pervert” and “crazy.”

The Ginger Man is important: it throws much light on Thompson’s writing. Nonsensical people can use the word inform, but that is not the gist. The gist is that The Ginger Man made Thompson as much as it made Martin Amis’s Money. Naturally, there are more books and writers that influenced Thompson - Hemingway, for example - but these are peripheral in comparison with Donleavy’s book, at least to myself. I could be wrong.

Thompson often become obsessed with certain words (“doomed,”“atavistic,” etc.) and in 1958 his preferred word was “myopia” or “myopic.” He included this in many of his letters from that year.

The mention of words that Thompson preferred continues throughout the book. It displays his preference for some words during different times and makes a difference in this book. For many writers, favourite words are repeated, become cliché, and ultimately only fireworks: Thompson was alcoholic and addicted to cocaine, which didn’t make things easy, especially when paired with his vicious critique of his editors; even though I feel Thompson was correct in his critique some times, perhaps especially in his political critique toward the end of his life, he burned a lot of bridges, possibly some synaptic function, and, in the end, his own language and reason, which shows in his writing. Wills neatly displays this devolution.

There are quite a few enlightening passages that show how Thompson became his well-known writer self:

For all he was improving as a writer, he learned at least one bad habit in Florida that would cause him untold trouble in his future career. By the middle of 1957, he was partying instead of watching the games he was meant to cover. Whether out of boredom or a deeper compulsion for self-sabotage, that year he began reporting based upon secondhand reports rather than what he actually saw. When he was asked to write about a banquet for the Eglin NCO newsletter, he got outrageously drunk and missed the event. This made the perfect fodder for his letters, in which the incorrigible mythmaker excelled at placing himself at the center of the story, not as an heroic figure but rather as an amusing loser.

Wills does a good job at uncovering problematic themes in Thompson’s writing. For example, was he racist and homophobic?

As to the question of whether Thompson was in fact racist, Semonin and others have noted that he had been deeply impressed by seeing Thurgood Marshall speak in New York and had broken a major taboo in both northern and southern states by dating a black woman, suggesting that he was more progressive than his literary efforts suggest. The experience with Marshall quite possibly was Thompson’s first major move toward a more progressive attitude to race, and although there are offensive stereotypes and racial slurs used casually in some of his later work, much of his best writing can equally be viewed as firmly antiracist. Thompson occasionally admitted to saying things that were racially insensitive but contended that this did not make him racist. In 1969, he explained: “My prejudice is pretty general, far too broad and sweeping for any racial limitations.” Sandy, meanwhile, stated in the 1990s that his attitudes as of the time of writing The Rum Diary were quite regressive, but that he had long since changed his stance.

Hunter was never entirely comfortable with the idea of homosexuality, although like his views on race he became increasingly liberal over the course of his life. Still, he often appeared homophobic. After his brother came out to him, Hunter refused to discuss it. When Jim Thompson was dying of AIDS in 1994, it was Sandy—by then a decade and a half divorced from Hunter—who looked after him and begged Hunter to visit.

Wills’s record of Thompson’s history of not delivering on time and devolving as a writer is quite effervescent.

What pocks my mind is the duality in Wills: he both lambasts and lauds Thompson. This is perhaps not strange when a writer follows their subject in both admiration and style - the later, somewhat - but it makes for a slightly fragmented reading experience.

This book is marred by its start; the introduction and first couple of chapters made me think this could well turn out to be a Wikipedia riff, a patchwork of experience simply culled by the help of Google. Not so. Not always. Some of is, indeed, patchwork. The main saving grace in this book is how Wills pieces together Thompson’s latter years, his experiences with other people, and how his writing continued.

One of Wills’s boons is displaying how Thompson evolved in his writing.

After his death, his widow, Anita Thompson, explained: “Here is the secret: Hell’s Angels owes its genre-busting success to the previous fifteen years Hunter had spent studying the art and craft of writing.” Indeed, he continued to develop these odd, stylistic quirks that ultimately forged his own inimitable style, making his writing easily identifiable. But it was not just a matter of style. These unconventional transitions helped him to structure his stories, weaving the strands of the plot neatly, and guiding his reader seamlessly from scene to scene, idea to idea. By beginning paragraphs with certain sentence fragments, he was able to include more wisdom through digressions and tangents before bringing the reader suddenly back to the main track. It would become a major feature of his writing over the coming years.

Wills’s details on Thompson’s Hells Angels, his breakthrough book, are important: they clearly lay out Thompson’s ability (or inability, depending who is asked) to merge fiction and non-fiction. Wills also lays out the birth of Thompson’s alter ego that would act a clear line in his life: Raoul Duke.

This article features yet more self-mythologizing from Thompson, who was keen to tell his readers that he had almost blown up Richard Nixon by smoking a cigarette too close to the engine of his airplane. He also drops in a name that might have been familiar to readers of Hell’s Angels: Raoul Duke. Thompson again mentions Duke just briefly, this time to deliver a quote about only trusting a drunk used-car salesman. Years later, Thompson said that he used Duke because he wanted an Angel to say something but none of them would say exactly what he needed.

Remember Thompson’s three-word sentence: ‘Neutrality is obsolete’. It says everything about how style wins over truth, whatever truth is.

There is valuable writing on Thompson’s downfall:

Even the journalists who did like and respect Thompson found his actions in Vietnam baffling at best. Five days after arriving in the country, he suddenly fled to Hong Kong. Newsweek reporter Loren Jenkins, whom Thompson had known since 1963, was disappointed in him. “You’re here to write Fear and Loathing in Saigon,” he said, “not Hong Kong.” Thompson claimed that he needed to sort out the situation with his insurance, but Jenkins felt that he was simply afraid. Years later, in Kingdom of Fear, Thompson wrote that he had gone to Hong Kong to pick up money and drugs for his journalist friends, but this was a lie. He had brought the money with him on his original flight and the opium he spoke of was available just about anywhere in the city, including the hotel’s room service. Indeed, his audio recordings from a Hong Kong hotel room confirm that he left Saigon because “the cycle of panic and calm is so violent” that he could no longer stand it.

At the end of this book, I did not feel it is the product of a dilettante or sloppy writer. I believe it needs some firmer edits, but that can be arranged. We are left with a simple story of a troubled and talented writer who let it all go to shame. Thompson, it seems, wrote himself into becoming a gonzo character and lost the plot. Then again, who needs a plot?