Gravity’s rainbow for Gonzo: High White Notes by David S Wills

Wills’s thesis here is not at all controversial: he seeks not to challenge the accepted wisdom re: Hunter S Thompson as a once groundbreaking writer who became trapped in his own (deliberately constructed) literary persona, but rather to evidence that argument thoroughly by reference to Thompson’s published work, as well as to secondary sources, and to Thompson’s letters and surviving audio recordings.

Thompson is not in fashion now as he was during the late 1990s, when I started reading his work*, and in more recent years I’ve seen repeated arguments that diminish even his better writing almost completely, reducing him instead to an ego-and-violence problem who just happened to do some typing once. Wills shows that the ego and violence issues are real enough, but also that, in the upward arc of his career (i.e. ’65 to ’75, approximately), those issues were channeled and transmuted into the work itself, to which Thompson displayed a staggering commitment of time end energy. His subsequent decline, as both writer and human being, can be tied to a lot of factors, not least his very rapid ascent to (inter)national fame**, which brought with it sources of far easier money than the long and painful labour of writing great work, as well as a regrettable commitment to inhabiting the role of the fiction POV that had been the key to that breakthrough. Wills argues convincingly that cocaine in particular—which Thompson had never actually taken before 1975 or so—was the point of no return, so to speak; experience with cokeheads in my own life, and the fates of many a well-known celebrity, make this a very plausible argument.

Wills doesn’t lean hard on it, but trauma and emotional constipation may well have contributed to the problem: Thompson’s grief over the death of a baby daughter, for instance, and the paradigm-shattering violence of (among other events) the Democratic Convention of ’68, left marks that a man with zero emotional outlets—not even his art, which arguably channelled his anger as a way of avoiding any other form of interiority whatsoever—could probably never process properly. For the avoidance of any doubt, this is not to excuse any of Thompson’s manifold failings as a father, husband, colleague or friend—and they really were manifold—but it does perhaps offer an explanation that goes a little deeper than “violent gun-nut pill-shovel”.

(Indeed, even the gun-nut angle tends to miss the point that he adopted it deliberately as a sort of homage-of-character to Hemingway, one of his major literary idols. As Wills notes in this book, the tragedy is compounded by Thompson’s insightful contemporary reading of Hemingway’s suicide as being driven by his having become trapped by the persona he wrote for himself in his prime—the very same fate that Thompson himself would eventually fall to.)

Wills’s arguments about Thompson’s genuine prowess as a writer is based on close analysis of excerpts, and comparisons with Thompson’s other literary polestar, Fitzgerald; there are even graphs of sentence length and punctuation frequency, for goodness’s sake, which is perhaps the least gonzo approach one could imagine to defending gonzo as a literary style. But what I really took from this book was the sheer amount of hours that Thompson dedicated to getting good, while defending what he knew early on to the be the writerly idiosyncrasies that would make him unique, and which would eventually (as Wills claims, and I second) change the rules regarding what was possible in both journalism and fiction, if not in literature more broadly.

On a more personal note, Wills’s close analysis made me realise how many of Thompson’s techniques I absorbed during my more obsessive engagement with his work: less the angry pyrotechnics, perhaps (though I daresay I did some of that when I thought I could get away with it), and more the discursive and digressional structure of his pieces, and the devices (e.g. ungrammatical sentence structures, replications of speech patterns) he used to make them not only work, but sing from the page. Not that I’m claiming my stuff sings from the page, of course… though I recognise in myself that fascination with chasing the “high white notes” that was so central to Thompson’s technique, as well as our shared resistance to editorial suggestions that those darlings be killed.

Selah. We all choose our templates; the question is whether we manage to grow beyond them. Thompson did so, but in so doing, destroyed both the template and his transcendence of it. A tragic and cautionary tale.

[ * It was actually recommended to me by a woman I worked with in a rubber parts factory somewhere near Petersfield, who was also “old lady” to the head honcho of a local biker club; while I can’t speak to the positions of others, it was apparent that Sonny Barger’s complaints regarding the way that Hell’s Angels created an almost entirely false template for the protocols of biker gangs meant little to this particular lot, who took it as something very like a gospel. ]

[ ** Thompson would make an interesting precursor case-study for Robin Sloan’s notion of the media cyborg, in fact… and returning to that concept is something I’ve been thinking about for some time now. ]

[ *** Perhaps most astonishing are the rates of pay for writers back in those days; even without adjusting for inflation, the piece-rate prices of Thompson’s early hack reporting gigs are probably better than a lot of people get today at a similar level in the ecosystem, and the big-ticket gigs of the ’60s and ’70s are simply astonishing. $250,000 advances for book pitches based only on a vague idea and an (admittedly stellar) established reputation as the hot new thing?! Maybe I’m out of touch with publishing finance in the present, but while it’s widely understood that newbie and midlist authors effectively subsidise the big-bucks pay-outs for celebrity biographies and business homilies dressed up as Management Theory, I still think those numbers would be shocking if they applied today to anyone other than your Pattersons and Rowlings and Kings. ]

[ These are slowly getting shorter; just about 1,000 words in this one, footnotes included! At this rate, I’ll be capable of capsule reviews some time close to the heat death of the universe…. ]

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