The Lords of Karma

book review: Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson
edited by Anita Thompson
Da Capo Press, 2009
ISBN 978-0-306-81651-2



(view on Amazon)

Hunter S. Thompson was a media personality from the days when he wrote about the Hell’s Angels in the 1960s until his death in 2005. Always a fan of talking with other journalists and promoting his books, Thompson gave fewer TV interviews as time went on–but he continued to talk to print reporters frequently enough that his late-period wife, Anita Thompson, was able to cull together a collection of interviews ranging the the 1960s to the 2000s. While not fundamentally different from the written words of Hunter S. Thompson, the interviews do reveal many different angles as they are written up in whatever style the interviewer had and not in Thompson’s famously brooding and brilliant prose. And of course Thompson’s words unsurprisingly tend to be less edited and less measured than in his writing. Clever comments and colorful anecdotes are shared throughout. But it is easy to see a slow decline in the quality of the interviews as time passes and Thompson’s considerable legend begins to overshadow whatever fresh stories might be discussed at the moment, and the questions get dumber, more backward-looking, and more predictable with time–and Thompson steadily more irritated. Still, for fans of late 20th century history and especially for Thompson fanatics, this book is an important appendix to his writing.

This volume of the book includes an introduction by Christopher Hitchens, which I cannot report on because I haven’t read a word of it. On to the book.

Due to Hunter S. Thompson’s gift for the English language, short snippets of the book can paint surprisingly vivid images:

“So I don’t agree with [Norman] Mailer that the psychopath could be an advance. I think it’s sort of an inevitable state.” (p. 61)

“If you act as weird as you are, something terrible is bound to happen to you, if you’re as weird as I am.” (p.87)

“There’s something ominous about a totally shaved head.” (p. 43)

Politics was an area that Thompson always followed closely, and some of his most caustic commentary is on public affairs:

“Q. Your theory on the JFK assasination is what?
A. That it was carried out by the Mob but organized and effectuated by J. Edgar Hoover.” (p. 233)

“You talk about losing battles and degrading the system, nobody has done more to discredit the idea that democracy can work and that decent people can be elected and run it than Richard Nixon.” (p. 105)

“Yes, popular opinion [about the George W. Bush administration] in this country has to be swung over to ‘the White House is wrong, these people are corporate thieves. They’ve turned the American Dream into a chamber of looting.'” (p. 292)

“If you want to get out on the road there and say ‘I’m the candidate of the new politics,’ which he’s [McGovern has] done, you have to take some peculiar baggage with you.” (p. 29)

Many of Thompson’s opinions are interesting, and because this book spans a wide range of time and many questioners it includes discussion of a wide scope of issues:

“I really think computers are only as smart as the person who programs it, and I’d have to program the damn thing myself in order for it to meet my needs.” (p. 180)

“By being embedded, it’s almost like being captured. You’re given access to whatever they want to give you access to, and they make you really grateful for it.” (p. 343)

“They seem [now in 1998] to be more completely brainwashed by mass media; more conforming [than in 1958].” (p. 249)

“Drugs usually enhance or strengthen my perceptions and reactions, for good or ill.” (p. 178)

So is there really any way to define Hunter S. Thompson? Well, he offers this thought in an interview with salon.com:

“Yeah, I consider myself a road man for the lords of karma.” (p. 318)

more Hunter S. Thompson posts:
The Rum Diary
The Kitchen Readings from Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis
Ralph Steadman’s book The Joke’s Over

It must be quieter now in the Roaring Fork Valley

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(Book review: The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson by Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis, 2008, Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-06-115928-2, Amazon)

The Kitchen Readings is a book about the middle aged and older Hunter Thompson, filled with anecdotes of the gunplay, explosions and excess partying that colored life at Owl Farm in Woody Creek, written by two of Thompson’s friends from the Aspen area of Colorado, where he lived more or less from the late 1960s onward.  Bob Braudis currently holds the post that Thompson famously ran for (barely losing) on the "Freak Power" ticket in 1970–sheriff of the local Pitkin County.  Cleverly is a former neighbor of Thompson’s and an artist.

The book goes between Braudis’s accounts of trying to keep Hunter in line with Cleverly’s reflections on life as Hunter’s neighbor.  The focus is usually on amusing–though given the involvement of Thompson, often dangerous and deranged–incidents involving driving too fast, drinking too much, ordering too much food, taking too many drugs, taking too long to do drugs before doing stuff, using too much explosive and chasing too many women.

So if Hunter S. Thompson only lived into his late 60s, this book reminds once again how weak and debilitated the celebrated journalist had become in the early 21st century–and again, reminds us of how utterly devastating George W. Bush’s 2004 win was to Thompson, and much of the country.  Cleverly uses a drawn-out discussion of the "Gonzo" funeral paid for by Johnny Depp to reflect on his passing and what it meant.  It sort of draws a dark cloud over the book, as none of the cocaine-fueled rages and drunken screw-ups recounted earlier in the book are nearly as morose and undignified as the image of a Hollywood funeral filled with Washington types and out-of-town security.  As the huge fist with a peyote button in it is described on page 259, "the monument was to be 153 feet high, a little taller than the statue of liberty."

"One has to stay current at all costs," as the book mentions on page 181 in the context of Thompson’s habit of always having the TV on.  Does Hunter’s constant desire for action help toward understanding the apparent suicide that ended his life in 2005?  Unable to stay current with his famous friends, still recovering from back surgery, arguing with his wife, dealing with unwanted visitors to his country home, ruing the new political order–but how does that really add up to much more than the usual adversity that someone like Thompson always seemed to face, or create?  Friends, in this book, seem to recount their last visits as fairly normal.

Regardless of all that, the stories in the book mainly center around Thompson’s kitchen, which served as a kind of headquarters, and the stuff that happened in the community–like the time Thompson got his vehicle submerged in a flooded hay field, or the time he accidentally shot his assistant Deborah while trying to scare a bear away from his garbage dumpster, or the time he needed a friend to hunt a bobcat out of his peacock cage.  Much of it is very funny, and the book has a laid back style and conspiratorial bent that make The Kitchen Readings, while not as brutal and as brilliant a depiction of Thompson as Ralph Steadman’s The Joke’s Over, definitely worth checking out.  Here a few interesting passages by way of example:

"Hunter’s short fuse was a thing of legend [p. 179]"

"Over the years to come, as his motor skills began to deteriorate, I began to worry about him on two wheels. [p. 226]"

"He raved to me that Juan only wanted his money, that Anita was depressed that she was the wife, nurse, housekeeper, editorial assistant and future widow of an old and decrepit journalist who believed that he was soon to expire or require 24-7 care. [p. 232]"

"We arranged his firing position to pose no danger to the golfer or the yuppie mountain bikers from Arkansas, as he referred to them, pedaling along the road past Owl Farm. [p. 39]"

"Duke asked himself why someone would swipe a jug of vanilla extract from the Jerome kitchen when one could just as easily swipe booze from the bar?  He didn’t bother to pose this question to Hunter.  Vanilla extract is 12 percent alcohol, but still… [p. 99]"

"Hunter loved to hear his writings read aloud. [p. 245]"

"Hunter was mistrustful of the ‘establishment.’  His rules were his own and often didn’t quite dovetail with those of the people who ran things. [p. 69]"

Thompson’s crusade for Lisl Auman–he thought that her conviction for "felony murder" was a miscarriage of justice and she was eventually granted some reprieve after his death [p. 195]–provides the basis for one of the more serious chapters in the book.

But Thompson did have some other serious chapters in his life as well–the aspiration to be a great American novelist, then to invent a new kind of journalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then to work (futilely) to usher in a new age of liberal freedom as that decade wore on.  But as with many in his age range, the 80s took their toll on Hunter S. Thompson, and after that it was in large measure a matter of living large for a time on the legend–something that Thompson did in Colorado with aplomb, and which this book documents well.