November 10th, 2008 at 8:21 am

Outlaw Journalist by William McKeen

Like Wild Turkey into the Good Doc’s mouth, so too go volumes on the shelf about him. While most books about Hunter S. Thompson are good because they are about Hunter S. Thompson, William McKeen’s “Outlaw Journalist” is good on its own accord, revealing the allure and talent of Thompson to an audience beyond his indoctrinated disciples. For all his presence and popularity, a Hunter S. Thompson biography could be accomplished with the literary equivalent of connect-the-dots or paint by number. Connect Hunter’s rebellious childhood with his breakout book about the outlaw motorcycle gang Hell’s Angels. Color in Hunter’s hyperbolic writing style with black blotter acid. In the parlance of Gonzo: load and shoot. Don’t aim.
So much has been written about Hunter S. Thompson, and his story is so mythic in its sweep, that it is difficult to summarize his career without restating stereotypes that have already been digested like so much mescaline by tens of thousands, if not millions, of his fans. With careful aim, McKeen avoids these trappings with “Outlaw Journalist.” There is very little of the hero worship and simple recounting of drugs and carousing that typify a story about Hunter S. Thompson. An acquaintance of Thompson’s and a professor of journalism at the University of Florida Gainesville, McKeen is uniquely situated to provide an atypical contribution to the growing cannon of criticism and analysis on such an outrageous and singular subject that is refreshingly divergent and illuminating in its academic classicism and straightforward tradition. In the David McCullough sense. In the Doris Kearns Goodwin sense. Which I felt was a fairly appropriate comparison for “Outlaw Journalist,” and then I got to page 216 and learned that Hunter once ran off with the Goodwin’s babysitter. It’s one amusing tale of many in “Outlaw Journalist,” a biography that is as good, fulfilling, and devoted to its topic as anything by McCullough or Goodwin, never shying away from the realities of its famous subject, but also moderating such antics with an academic examination of craft.
McKeen’s achievement resides in his balance and restraint. He tempers the excessive and unconventional biographical information that all readers will find fascinating in the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson with literary analysis that seems to be so lacking in other works about him, and so important for why Thompson is a relevant writer who demands to be read. It is McKeen’s focus on Thompson’s writing that make “Outlaw Journalist” an impressive and worthwhile read. McKeen methodically interweaves historical enlightenment with Thompson’s development as a writer, including both contextual influences and progression in his literary style.
Though McKeen provides plenty of anecdotes teeming with recreational hubris, the majority of the stories he shares pointedly illuminate who Hunter was as a person instead of merely indulging in clichés, hero worship, and perverse fascination with the glamour of substance abuse that only reinforce the stale theme of Thompson as some kind of mere cultural jester. We learn that while Hunter was indeed a difficult child growing up and a budding delinquent with an early disdain for authority, he was an aspiring scholar as well; starting a newspaper, reading Thucydide’s account of the Peloponnesian wars, and leading his friends to the library for bouts of reading between rounds of raising hell. We learn that Thompson broke into a morgue as an adult and stole his recently still-born daughter in order to bury her at home after the doctors had informed him that they would “dispose of” it. These are remarkable instances that McKeen shares, ones far removed from the madness and myths that so commonly surround Hunter S. Thompson’s reputation and tradition.
Writing about a man with a searing, vicious wit, McKeen proves himself to be a capable biographer of such an individual by being quite funny as well. In a biography’s pursuit in separating fact from fiction, McKeen deals with the legends surrounding Thompson’s firing from Time magazine early in his career. Did he just leave? Was he fired for insubordination and the destruction of a vending machine? Or did he create such a story to enhance his reputation as a rebel? McKeen settles the matter, telling us, “The truth is probably somewhere in between. One certainty is that Hunter and vending machines never got along.” That clears it up. Especially as a chronicler of Hunter S. Thompson, someone notorious for his exaggeration and paranoid drama, one is smart to ironically understate things as McKeen does in “Outlaw Journalist.” Even though McKeen insists that Thompson’s landmark work, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” was a heightened version of reality, that Hunter and Acosta talked about the murder of Ruben Salazar and the merits of Acosta’s case against the city of Los Angeles while they were in Las Vegas, McKeen does quickly remind us that, “They also took a lot of drugs and ran amuck.” And that confirms things.
McKeen’s is an all-encompassing, enthusiastic biography, taking the reader with Hunter through the struggles, the poverty, the rejection, the antics, the jobs, and traveling with him from Louisville, Florida, New York, Puerto Rico, Big Sur, South America, San Francisco, and Colorado. “Outlaw Journalist” paddles through the mandatory rapids of Thompson’s life: the rebellious childhood, the time in the Air Force and early struggles, the breakout of “Hell’s Angels,” the success of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” and onto the waterfall of his later life with its struggle to cope with the myth he created and the reputation that enveloped him while his writing deconstructed into self-imitation and desperate regurgitation.
McKeen is a dutiful docent through this sprawling, unruly life, taking us to Thompson’s experience at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and showing how it galvanized and politically radicalized him, even peeping into his life for a rare moment of tears from the stoic man as a result of the violence he witnessed in Chicago. We observe the beginning of Thompson’s relationship with illustrator Ralph Steadman and their infamous coverage of the Kentucky Derby. We see Thompson react to Watergate, his rising notoriety and celebrity, and the incessant struggles with money and finances that colored his entire life. McKeen tells us when productive-and-prolific Hunter stopped and cocaine-snorting Hunter took over, all the while detailing the marital deterioration, mediocre speaking engagements, and infidelities that were a part of his private and professional life. The reader sees Thompson’s appearance as the character Uncle Duke in the Doonesbury comic strip and his slow devolution into a prisoner of his own cult.  We have front row seats for the great political writing that made Thompson so popular and become almost immediately impossible as his own fame became too unwieldy to be a true reporter.  We witness Thompson’s legendary relationship with Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine.  We follow him through his divorce, his time spent in Key West and his extended relationship with Laila Nabulsi, who would go on to produce the film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
McKeen’s research and capabilities in fully realizing his subject’s environment and influences is splendid. As McKeen is certain to inform us about the idiosyncrasies of Hunter’s neighborhood growing up as well as the day-to-day activities of Eglin Air Force Base, so too does he provide an appropriate history of journalism, such as the Wall Street Journal’s little-person/big-picture approach to explanatory journalism that was becoming increasingly popular as Hunter started in the industry. McKeen also traces the rise of New Journalism with the growing prominence of writers like Tom Wolf and Gay Talese using the techniques of fiction in journalism. In order to place Thompson in the tradition of other writers and journalists, as well as the larger socio-economic puzzle that he was a piece of, McKeen also brushes up the reader on changes in TV journalism and politics, briefly noting the changes television brought to campaign coverage, the increasing grandiosity and theatrical nature of conventions, and the influence of writers like Theodore H. White.
One major appeal of Hunter S. Thompson in our current society of celebrity-worship, a fixation Thompson himself was subjected to, is that his story is a name-dropping extravaganza. He was friends with famous people. Not only was he friends with famous people, he did shocking and hilarious things with famous people that anyone could be jealous of doing with their humble “nobody” friends. Even Jackie Onassis called to check on her kids when she learned Hunter was staying in the same house as them. Such anecdotes of fear and adoration for Thompson, while serving a biographical purpose, are even more ironic and fascinating as McKeen posits them inside a larger survey of journalism, chronicling its rise in the 1970s into a pulpit for celebrity worship.
McKeen puts us with Hunter as events unfolded in subtle and effective ways that ground and illuminate Hunter’s work historically, such as McKeen’s note that Hunter’s article on Ruben Salazar in Rolling Stone appeared alongside a profile of the young singer Michael Jackson. These tidbits make “Outlaw Journalist” an exemplary biography, one that doesn’t extol and isolate its subject as a detached and god-like idol, but as a talented and unique man who worked hard and contributed to the culture he was a part of.
Beyond the lively biographical chronology, placed within larger industrial and historical trends and changes, however compulsory, absorbing, and compellingly told, it is “Outlaw Journalist’s” focus on Thompson’s craft that elevates it beyond mere portraiture and profile. McKeen roots Thompson in the lofty, storied lineage of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and Jack Kerouac, deferring to an old friend from Louisville to summarize Thompson with, “Philosophically, I always felt that he was firmly based in the stoicism of Hemingway and the hedonism of Fitzgerald.” But McKeen does not stop there, going so far as quoting directly from Hemingway so as to compare the two wordsmith’s similar sparse, straightforward styles. McKeen does a fine job of analyzing Thompson’s writing itself, deconstructing and examining it as metajournalism, journalism about journalism, and “getting the story.”
McKeen’s work insists that despite Hunter’s decadent reputation as an avowed drug user and vicious social critic given to belligerent ranting and raving, he was a very meticulous writer and cared about every word. McKeen relates a story in which a friend described Hunter sitting on a seawall in Cozumel, “reading a $1.25 newspaper that would have cost a more sober man 25 cents.” Hunter saw that and said, “No. No…it is better if we make it 24 cents.” Such scrutiny is what made Hunter great and such detail and inclusion inside of the larger chronological narrative of his life is what makes “Outlaw Journalist” such a superb profile of Hunter S. Thompson. It reveals a man, however eccentric and overshadowed by entertaining flaws, who was admirably committed to his craft.
McKeen illuminates and examines unpublished and lesser known manuscripts and articles that reveal Thompson’s progression as a writer, such as “The Gun Lobby,” a ‘bridge book’ between “Hell’s Angels” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” that followed Hunter’s shock at the assassination of Robert Kennedy. McKeen notes that it was written in an unusual style: “Rather than use the just-the-facts approach the subject would seem to require, Hunter turned it into a long narrative, with himself as the central figure, as the window through which to view America’s violent character.” Hunter S. Thompson as we know him, was born. From there, McKeen takes us along as we learn about Hunter’s procedures, his writing methods, his work habits, his relationships with editors and assistants, and his writing style as assembly that came in bursts of brilliance. McKeen details Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism as a process of aggregation that required a large contribution from editors, hand-holders, baby-sitters, and enablers. Despite this coven of crutches hobbling around drinking this man’s twisted brew, McKeen goes to great pains in insisting that Thompson was not the careless, drug-gobbling fiend that so many take him for. “It had never been easy,” McKeen tells us, “but Hunter had the gift of making his work appear so. His legions of stoned admirers probably really thought he took a hundred hits of acid before sitting down to write. But the craftsmanship those close to him saw as he agonized over his words spoke to how much went into making it look like a breeze.”
Analyzing and examining Hunter’s prose, McKeen deconstructs and isolates the writer’s work, detailing his specific themes and styles: the use of a confederate/sidekick, false editor’s notes, himself at the center of stories, “getting the story” as the primary story, and wild flights of fancy. Such basic analysis and identification of elements familiar to any casual Hunter S. Thompson reader seems simple, but as McKeen explains, “His narrative device, in which getting the story became the story, fit his political reporting perfectly. It allowed him to present a scene, then ask the questions readers asked. As he questioned his sources, readers were collaborators piecing together facts. Hunter presented himself as a manic and somewhat inept reporter, a clever way to mask his shrewd style.” Thompson wore a cloak of ineptitude and ignorance that allowed him to say things other journalists could not. Such a device permitted Hunter to contrast himself, the vulnerable hack/drug fiend, to the slimy politicians and establishment stalwarts he was writing about and railing against.
McKeen’s biography paints Hunter S. Thompson as a man who was indeed a special writer with immense talent and without rival, but hardly someone without significant flaws. Further evidence of McKeen’s balanced portrait and refusal to engage in blatant infatuation and praise is his inclusion of Thompson’s most obvious failures and disappointments. The Ali-Foreman fight was one of the biggest stories of the year and Hunter S. Thompson was there to cover it. Instead he sold his tickets and floated in a swimming pool of marijuana during the fight. Norman Mailer grumbled that Hunter’s fans were too easily pleased and would accept anything from their man. McKeen agrees: “Hunter could have given his fans a story about a nightmare assignment in a horrible, uncomfortable city. He could have written about smuggling elephant tusks into Kennedy Airport or his intense paranoia about the Zairean officials and their attitudes about drug use. His fans would have accepted anything, and loved it.” Inside McKeen’s framing of “Outlaw Journalist,” this isn’t so much a condemnation of Hunter’s fans and their lack of taste and sophistication as much as it is a testament to Thompson’s abilities and prowess as a writer and an essential thread, however disappointing, in understanding Hunter S. Thompson. He was good, very good, able to divine a story from any experience, but in many instances, simply didn’t.
With Thompson’s time in Vietnam, McKeen further explores the brash and absurd nature of Thompson. He was no doubt a man controlled by considerable vices, but a man who was aware of his flaws and made such afflictions into a semi-profitable and certainly prosperous career. But in Vietnam, as at the Ali-Foreman fight, Thompson is exposed as a reckless and disappointing hack who he had made a career of admonishing. Beyond McKeen’s recounting of Thompson’s “country-club approach” in Vietnam and his silly escapade to Hong Kong in order to buy gadgets and electronics when Saigon finally fell, McKeen arrives at his most severe criticism near the end of the book. McKeen observes that Thompson had prided himself on “getting away with it” and had turned such an act into a major theme in his writing to great success, but Thompson spent his later years trapped in a mythology he had created and stuck in a rut of self-imitation: “He had worked hard, but too often had taken the easy way out, seeing what he could get away with.”
It would be easy for a biographer to connect the dots left unconnected by Thompson’s late-career waning, obvious failures, and suicide and discern the form of a Cautionary Tale or Obnoxious Farce. McKeen does neither. Instead he colors in several important aspects of Hunter S. Thompson’s life that have only been lightly shaded in by the pencils of blind praise and celebrity worship with the permanent marker of serious literary analysis and balanced, cogent perspective. Thompson would no doubt be miffed by such a reasoned, straightforward telling, but the literary community and fans should be thankful as McKeen’s work on Hunter S. Thompson is a fitting, balanced portrait of a man who is, and has been, too easily caricatured, mythologized, and blindly embraced. Properly loaded, aimed, and fired, “Outlaw Journalist” hits the target.

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