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We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

So begins Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the book that was first published in two issues of Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 and propelled Thompson and his revolutionary “Gonzo” journalism into the spotlight. As the subtitle warns, the book takes readers on “a savage journey to the heart of the American dream,” and it also sealed Thompson’s burgeoning reputation as an outlaw genius. The time was right – Thompson had put himself in place to be the living historian of the counterculture.

At the same time, he had introduced his Gonzo style to journalism. Gonzo is characterized by a flamboyant writing style that blurs the distinctions between writer and subject, fiction and nonfiction. The reporter becomes intrinsically enmeshed with the subject and the action, rather than being a passive observer.
Although Thompson did not coin the term, “gonzo” has become synonymous with his name. The word was first used by Boston Globe reporter Bill Cardoso who, after reading Thompson’s infamous 1970 article on the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly, reportedly proclaimed “This is pure Gonzo!”

The term has now become a bona-fide style of writing that concerns itself with “telling it like it is” and is a closely related offshoot of the New Journalism practiced by writers such as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. (The word has also found a place in the twenty-plus volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Thompson’s article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” was first published in Scanlan’s Monthly, the short lived monthly sporting magazine that ran for only two years, and offered his first foray into the realm of Gonzo – before Gonzo even existed as such.

Accompanied by artist Ralph Steadman’s sketches (the first of many collaborations between Thompson and Steadman) the genesis of the article has been described by Thompson as akin to “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.” Faced with a rapidly approaching deadline and without any coherent story for his editors, Thompson began tearing pages from his notebook, numbering them, and sending them to the magazine. The resulting story, and the manic, first-person subjectivity that characterized it, were the beginnings of the Gonzo style.

The article’s focus is less on the race itself (because Thompson and Steadman could not actually see the race from their standpoint) and more on the celebration and depravity surrounding the event. Thompson provides up-close views of life in the Derby infield as well as the grandstand, and a running commentary on the drunkenness and lewdness of the crowd. The article was the first widely-read piece by Thompson and garnered nationwide attention for its unusual style, which would be followed soon after by Fear and Loathing and even greater acclaim.

Thompson became a legendary literary figure long before his suicide in February of 2005. He was born in 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky, and by the age of ten he was writing for his own two-page, four-cent neighborhood newspaper. After early trouble with the law, Thompson enlisted in the Air Force, where he worked as a sportswriter for the base newspaper and other local papers (which was against regulations). He was discharged in 1958 and claimed to have been issued a “totally unclassifiable” status.

After attending classes on short story writing at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, Thompson worked briefly for Time magazine as a “copyboy,” but was soon fired in 1959 for insubordination. Later that year, he also worked as a reporter for the Middletown Daily Record in upstate New York. He was fired from this job after damaging an office candy machine and, separately, arguing with the owner of a local restaurant who happened to be an advertiser with the paper.

Thompson got his big break in 1965 when he wrote an article about the Hells Angels for The Nation, after he had spent a year living and riding with the notorious motorcycle gang, but he receieved a savage beating (or “stomping”) when the Angels found out that he was making money off of them and his writings. The book Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Sage of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was published in 1966.

In the late 1960s, Thompson received a “doctorate” in Divinity from a mail-order church while living in San Francisco. He was jokingly referred to as “the Good Doctor” from then on. Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, in 1970 on the “Freak Power” ticket. He narrowly lost the election to the incumbent Republican sheriff, whose crew cut inspired Thompson to shave his head bald and refer to the sheriff as “my long-haired opponent.” Throughout his life, Thompson was a devoted sports fan and gun enthusiast, and allegedly kept a keg of gunpowder in his basement.

Thompson almost always wrote in first person narrative, and his stories became so colorfully contrived that they easily slipped into the realm of fiction; however, the basic framework of the story he told was very often true. He cultivated the persona of a dangerously absurd, drug-crazed journalist bent on comic self-destruction. While his fictional characterization largely mirrored his actual life, Thompson said that he sometimes felt obligated to live up to the fictional self that he had created.

Along with Thompson’s popularity, of course, came countless imitators. None could match the manic energy of his writing, nor would any of them reach the same level of fame and admiration that Thompson garnered, but they served to spread the gonzo style to an even wider audience. Literary critic Jerome Klinkowitz attempts to capture the essence of Gonzo reporting:

The quick cut, the strategic use of digression, the ability to propel himself through a narrative like a stunt driver, steering with the skids so that the most improbable intentions result in the smoothest maneuvers, the attitude of having one’s personal craziness pale before contemporary American life – all of these elements combine to define, as best one can, the peculiar energies unique to the Gonzo writer.

Today, Matt Taibbi is one of those journalists who carries the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson and is keeping Gonzo alive – barely. Taibbi was born in 1970, the same year that Thompson began writing for Rolling Stone magazine. In fact, Taibbi is now a regular contributor to Rolling Stone himself, often writing for the “National Affairs” column that Thompson began more than thirty years ago. The work of these two writers displays some of the best examples of Gonzo journalism, but unfortunately also reveals the unbridgeable gap that Thompson’s death has created and the shrinking role of Gonzo in contemporary journalism.

Matt Taibbi has not yet proven himself to be nearly as prolific or influential as the legendary Hunter S. Thompson, to be sure. Taibbi spent his childhood in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, and attended Bard College. He spent his senior year abroad at Leningrad State University, and in 1992 Taibbi moved to Uzbekistan, but was forced to leave six months later after writing critically about the country’s president. Afterwards, Taibbi worked for The Moscow Times as a sports editor, before moving on to work as a professional athlete in Russia and Mongolia, and as a correspondent for Montsame, the Mongolian National News Agency.

Taibbi joined Mark Ames in 1997 to co-edit the controversial English-language Moscow-based, bi-weekly free newspaper The eXile. Taibbi said about the experience, “We were out of the reach of American libel law, and we had a situation where we weren’t really accountable to our advertisers. We had total freedom.”

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi

In 2002, Taibbi returned to the U.S. to start the satirical bi-weekly newspaper The Beast in Buffalo, New York. He left the paper not long after, however, citing the difficultiy of the dual repsonsibilites of both writing and managing the business. He continued writing freelance articles for The Nation, Playboy, New York Press and eventually Rolling Stone.

For the purpose of comparing the journalism of Hunter S. Thompson and Matt Taibbi, I will limit my analysis of Thompson’s work primarily to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. This is partly due to the fact that both of these books were first published as serialized articles for Rolling Stone, where Taibbi has been practicing his own version of Gonzo journalism for the past few years, but also because they display Thomspon at the height of both his style and his relevance. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remains the iconic piece of Gonzo literature, while Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 exhibits Thompson’s status as a self-proclaimed “politcal junkie.” It is important to consider both of these aspects of Thompson’s writing in any comparison.

The first and most obvious characteristic of gonzo journalism is the presence of the writer as the central character, speaking in the first-person point of view. Both Thompson and Taibbi use this technique to not only tell the story, but to become the story. Thompson perfected his style to the point that his readers, for the most part, remain interested in his binges and drug-induced hazes as he progresses through the narrative. As an example, this passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is remarkably one of the more sober moments of his experience:

It was after midnight when I finally was able to talk and move around…but I was still not free of the drug; the voltage had merely been cranked down from 220 to 110. I was a babbling nervous wreck, flapping around the room like a wild animal, pouring sweat and unable to concentrate on any one thought for more than two or three seconds at a time.

Taibbi, on the other hand, writes without the influence of drugs or alcohol – something it seems Thompson was never able to do. In one of the first pieces he wrote for Rolling Stone, Taibbi travelled south of the border into Mexico to examine the prescription drug trade that had begun to draw so many American tourists to the region. The article is so reminsicent of Thompson’s aggressive style that I expected Taibbi, quite naturally, to consume as many drugs as he could find and write the same sort of rambling stream-of-consciousness diatribe that had been Thompson’s modus operandi. Alas, Taibbi forgoes the four-day bender and instead writes an insightful piece about this new source of Mexican income.

Therefore, it should be noted that gonzo is not merely the art of employing a dazzling assortment of narcotics as a reporting tool, despite Thompson’s reputation to that effect. What distinguishes gonzo journalism is not a booze- or mescaline-induced haze, but a singular, razor-sharp clarity. Both Thompson and Taibbi exhibit a clear purpose in their writing, unfettered by the typical boundaries of objective journalism. They mock their subjects with harsh invectives that would never be found in the objectve pages of the New York Times or Washington Post, but are perfectly acceptable in the gonzo-friendly world of Rolling Stone.

This brings us to the next major gonzo principle – objectivity is only a myth. Thompson himself writes in the opening pages of On the Campaign Trail ’72, “So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here – not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

Many writers and critics attack Thompson, Gonzo and other New Journalism writers for being too subjective and unprofessional; others see the hyperbole and fictionalized details that are typical of the style as a way to present an even more accurate and honest picture of the events described, by getting at the deeper truth behind the facts.

A liberal publication like Rolling Stone allows, or perhaps even demands, this sort of subjective reporting, and both Thompson and Taibbi leave objectivity in the dust and find real-life super-villains to serve as foils to their Gonzo heroes. To Hunter S. Thompson, President Richard M. Nixon “represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise,” as he writes in On the Campaign Trail ‘72.

Taibbi comes along at a time when it is again encouraged to portray politicians as evil-doers, whose only purpose is to hurt the little guy and ruin America. George W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, among others, have replaced Nixon and his cronies as today’s bad boys of politics. Taibbi writes in a recent Rolling Stone article,

All accounts point to Abramoff as the prototypically humorless Animal House campus villain. A thick-necked champion weight lifter (he still holds the Beverly Hills High bench-press record) with a square jaw and exquisite hygiene, the man-child Abramoff also had the kind of sadistic jock temperament that impresses coaches and corporate recruiters alike.

He manages to both complement and insult Abramoff at the same time, with a wry sense of humor that seems to rip a page directly out of Hunter S. Thompson’s own notebook.

But Taibbi’s malice against the Bush administration feels like white noise against the current political climate and media backlash of The Daily Show and other left-wing media, whereas Thompson’s vendetta against Nixon was legendary in its own right. In Thompson’s world and throughout his entire career, all wrongdoing could be blamed on President Dick.

When Taibbi went undercover to Florida to volunteer for the Republican Party before the 2004 presidential election, he found something disappointing: Republicans aren’t all evil; they’re not all rednecks; and they don’t even all love George W. Bush. Instead of hatred, Taibbi expressed pity – a sentiment that Thompson would never allow himself to express, because he rarely, if ever, admitted that he could be wrong.

This shift in American political culture is partly responsible for the inevitable downfall of Gonzo journalism as practiced by Thompson, who wrote more than thirty years ago about “the massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to choose immediately between a Ford and a Chevy.” This sentiment remains true today, of course, as do so many of Thomspon’s predictions and declarations.

All of this places Gonzo as a firmly American form of journalism. What links Thomspon and Taibbi most is not a love of illegal substances, or even the abuse of legal ones. It is not an almost incoherent yet somehow precise account of the day’s events (Thomspon often barely edited his notes before sending them to the publisher, while Taibbi clearly does his research, outlines his story, and plans every word before it goes to print). Rather, the strongest element of Gonzo to survive for nearly four decades is a love of the American dream that Thompson went searching for so long ago, and a desperate attempt to halt its ongoing decline.

Through his hungover haze, Thompson was able to cut directly to the heart of any issue. Gonzo is not essentially about drugs or politics or even a writing style, but about our American life. Taibbi and Thompson share a passion for America that reveals itself in their hot-blooded and often angry words. Taibbi calls the Hurricane Katrina reconstruction effort “one of the all-time masterpieces of bloodless institutional racism, a resounding tribute to America’s unparalleled ability to fuck the poor under pressure.” He criticizes Washington, full of lobbyists and special interest groups, because he was actually taken seriously when he jokingly suggested drilling for oil in the Grand Canyon. And he sees the ongoing Enron scandal as emblematic of all of America’s current ills: greedy, compassionless, and unwilling to take the blame for our own mistakes.

Taibbi and Thompson are certainly similar in many respects, but there may simply not be a place for Hunter S. Thompson’s incendiary, drug-addled literature in contemporary journalism. Even liberal publications such as Rolling Stone are only shadows of what they once were. Perhaps bloggers are taking up the mantle left vacant by Thompson’s death; blogging may in fact be the only natural vehicle for modern gonzo pracitioners.

Even though, at times, Matt Taibbi matches Hunter S. Thompson’s rampant profanity, vilifying personal attacks, pop culture references – and occassionally even his nonsensical stream-of-consciousness – he can never send in his unedited notebooks for publication while he recovers from a three-day acid trip, nor can he sip Wild Turkey as his muse. This is partly because not many would bother to read it; it’s all been done before. But more importantly, it is because Gonzo in its purest form lived and died with its father, its dean, its “good doctor,” Hunter S. Thompson.

This essay was written May 2006 for the NYU Journalism course “Literature of Journalism.”

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