“Fear and Loathing” Turns 50

My internal space-time calculator did a double take yesterday upon reading this longish but fascinating Facebook excerpt of Hunter S. Thompson writing about writing — in particular, the making of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which apparently just turned 50. Hard to imagine we’ve made fifty trips around the sun since Thompson pulled that white rabbit from his magic hat.

I was but an embryo in November 1971, blissfully unaware of Richard Nixon or Vietnam or any other generational troubles that filled HST’s mind at the time. Eighteen years later, I was introduced to his work during a memorable freewheeling episode of my life (which also happened to be set in Los Angeles). He became the first of a cadre of writers who I would later call my greatest influences and inspirations. Even more so, he was a kindred spirit, but in a strange way: we are such polar opposites that we meet somewhere behind the observable world and recognize each other, in that way that far-left anarchists and far-right libertarians often do. I liken him to a crazed, dashing older brother who I wanted to emulate, but realized I could never measure up to, so I gave up and defiantly did me instead, and now we recognize and admire that defiance in each other. (It helps that he’s also a Cancer male, so, for instance, when his liner notes for a book include a shout out to Lyle Lovett and Cowboy Junkies for helping him get through the writing of it, I feel that. I know exactly what he felt.)

This particular piece gave me a couple insights along these lines: One, my journalism career was doomed by my nature before it began. I’m not what one would call a keen observer of the outside world — I’ve had poor eyesight my whole life, and almost no visual memory; I remember words and facts clearly enough, but images dissolve into nothingness as they become the past — and I don’t like talking to people. Especially not confrontationally, in order to extract a story from them. Even as a cub sports reporter for the Nashua, NH paper in high school, I hated talking to coaches after the games to get quotes; I just wanted to go sit at my desk with my notes and spin literary capsules in inverted pyramid form. So my “nose for news” was never even adequate for the job, as I would have learned if I’d advanced through the undergrad program at Maryland. I was born to write fiction.

Two: Though I always emulated New Journalism and especially HST’s “Gonzo” version of it, with its signature blend of journalism and fiction, what I’ve actually been doing all along is the opposite. HST was masterful at observing the external world and bending it into a fictional context, so cleanly that readers can’t tell the difference. What I do is observe the internal world and blend it into external experiences, hopefully with the same effect. While the foundational weight-bearing strength of Fear and Loathing is a journalistic exposition of the lived experience of the death of 1960s hippie culture, in Birding in the Face of Terror I believe it is the fictional exploration of America’s post-9/11 soul searching. His was a pessimistic portrait of the junkie’s realization that he’ll never reach that high again; mine is an optimistic epistle to the broken that our greatest revelation has yet to come.

Back in the day, when my original website was called Heretic Asylum, I made a bumper sticker using a quote attributed (though somewhat dubiously) to George Orwell: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” To that, I added my tagline: “Heretic Asylum: Journalism of the Soul since 2013.”

Journalism of the Soul…I like that. I think it’s time to start using it again.

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