‘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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3 comments

  1. Dear Fran

    Many thanks for your review. It’s always good to be read and discussed, even if readers’ views aren’t entirely positive. I do have to question some of the assumptions of your review, however:

    (1) suggestions of HST being accused of sexual assault or having dubious views on race are brushed over or ignored. ‘A sentence on each’.

    In fact, I spend a whole chapter (chapter 5) discussing HST and American imperialism / colonialism, including his relationship to race: a quick glance at the index would show you the topic is covered on over 30 pages. I spend a significant part of chapter 4 on his views on women, the misogyny in his work, his complex relationship to homophobia, etc. (Incidentally I don’t spend any more time on the actual sexual assault case because this has been pored over exhaustively by biographers. For the same reason, I don’t cover HST’s suicide in great detail.) Only a superficial reading of the first half of chapter 1 would lead you to conclude racism and sexism are glossed over: how else could you make the assumption that this devalues everything else I say (see review) when I spend to much time on just these topics?

    This, incidentally, somewhat undermines your claims that my book has an ‘obvious denial of any flaws in Thompson’. I spend whole sections doing nothing but discussing HST’s own sense of his flaws and how this fed into his work (see chapter 5, for instance, on his awareness of his complicity in the cult of celebrity and in US soft power; or chapter 3, where Thompson’s self-disgust at his fascination with the corrupt US political system is addressed at length.)

    (2) Stephenson clearly hero-worships Thompson.

    Well, I ought to know, and I don’t. In fact, I have little interest in him as an individual: as I say at length in the book, Gonzo became a commercial brand-name, a pose. Thompson was trapped in his persona. To hero-worship him would be at best reductive, at worst silly. However, I do admire his *work* hugely, which is a different thing – though the relationship between man and work is a complex one, as I explore throughout the book. Again, perhaps not coincidentally, the most pro-Thompson section of the book is the start of chapter 1, where I establish the strength and distinctiveness of his work and approach before going on to question some of his values in later chapters.

    (3) The book descends into biography.

    Well, I sense a pattern emerging here, because yet again, the opening part of chapter 1 is the only section that goes into biography at any length it was, of course, necessary to offer a biographical section early on to orientate those readers who did not know a great deal about Thompson’s life (a minority, probably).

    (4) Stephenson seems scared to analyse closely.

    Each to his / her own, of course: what do you mean by depth? Interestingly, the online preview available from the publishers (the opening part of chapter 1, again…..) ends just at the point when the book begins to engage with literary theory in depth. On pp. 28 onwards, I discuss in detail Thompson’s relationship to the concept of bricolage outlined by Levi-Strauss and Derrida, as well as going on to analyse his relationship to Michel Foucault’s analysis of the author as a historical construction designed to limit meaning rather than originate it. I also refer to Deleuze and Guattari’s account of the schizophrenic producer/product identity in Anti Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. And that’s just chapter one: afterwards, I work with Bakhtin, Couze Venn, Franz Fanon, etc. to situate Thompson’s construction of the subject in terms of recent postcolonial thought as well as Marxist developments in formalist criticism, and the neo-Rabelasian tradition of the carnivalesque.

    Yet again, a superficial reading of the first half of chapter 1 might lead a reader to think my book didn’t engage with Thompson in depth; that’s because I deliberately saved the depth for later rather than alienating readers by getting into complex material early on.

    Therefore, Fran, after considering points 1)-4), I feel justified in posing a question to you….

    Have you read the whole book, or just the online preview available from the publishers?

    If in fact, you’ve read the whole book, then I apologize – but you frankly need to offer far more evidence to justify your criticisms of lack of depth and my allegedly superficial treatment HST’s work’s relationship to race, gender, etc.

    If, as seems likely, you haven’t read the whole book, then I’d love it if you did so and revised the original review.

    Thanks again, though, for your positive comments, which are very helpful.

    Best wishes,

    William Stephenson

  2. Only just saw this. Apologies if you don’t agree with some of what I said. However, I did read the whole book. Some of it twice. I just found that at times, areas that could have been fascinating were glossed over and that left me wanting more. Obviously, everyone will react differently to the book and I hope other readers and reviewers offend you less than I seem to have.
    Good luck
    Fran

    • Dear Fran

      Thanks for your reply. No hard feelings – apologies for my mistaken assumption that you only read the online preview. Of course you’re fully entitled to your view, and I’m sure you’re right that some areas could have been covered in more depth. I still stand by my points that I address race, gender and Thompson’s flaws far more than your review states, but I do (sincerely) appreciate your taking the time to read the book and review it.

      All the best,

      William

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