‘A book about his personality and myth, rather than an exploration of his work’ – Gonzo Republic : Hunter S Thompson’s America by William Stephenson

The blurb on the back of Gonzo Republic claims is as the first full-length critical analysis of Hunter S. Thompson’s literary work. I can neither confirm nor deny this. I can definitely tell you that it’s full length. That it’s sometimes critical, but not always. And that there is a fair amount of analysis in there too. But whether I would call it a full-length critical analysis of Hunter S. Thompson’s literary work is a different matter I suppose. I’d be tempted to call it more of a hero worship. A dedication to a writer who Stephenson seems to hold above all others. An academic version of a loving, heartfelt, and overly-long eulogy.

That is not, however, to say that I didn’t enjoy reading it. I also hold Thompson on a kind of pedestal. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a work of rare genius, wonderful satire, and wit that makes the belly shake with laughter. And Stephenson captures the wonder of Thompson very well.

But he fails to offer much real in-depth analysis. A lot of what the reader finds here is outline, basic ideas of what his stories might mean, the conditions he wrote them in, the hidden layers that many could garner from just watching the film version of his most famous book. Stephenson seems scared to really delve inwards, as though worried that he might offend the author he adores. This is most evident when the book becomes more biography than criticism. We hear great anecdotes about the time when a child Thompson smashed some mailboxes, but avoided prosecution by the police when questioning whether or not they had any actual proof. It’s a great story. A well placed indication of how the young Thompson had already started to develop the desire to trouble authority that would later feed his work. It makes Hunter a hero. But, when Stephenson later brings up suggestions of Thompson being accused of sexual assault, or his questionable views on race, these matters are brushed over and ignored. A sentence on each. When this happens, it places questions of validity onto everything Stephenson says. What is he hiding? What is he exaggerating? Is this a work about the real Thompson, or the one Stephenson wants him to be?

And, of course, the biggest downfall of all these questions is that they really shouldn’t be important to what is apparently ‘a full-length critical analysis’ of a man’s writing. But they are. The presence of hero-worship, and the all too obvious denial of any flaws in Thompson, make this a book about his personality and myth, rather than an exploration of his work. A shame really.

Any Cop?: For fanboys, yes. For the generation who worshipped Thompson, and those who came after, this is an informative and interesting work that won’t challenge your views. But I think we’re still waiting for that first full-length critical analysis.

Fran Slater

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