THE SKEPTIC: A LIFE OF H.L. MENCKEN BY TERRY TEACHOUT

July 28th, 2008 at 6:00 pm

“I never wash my hands after taking a leak. That’s the cleanest part of me.” – H.L. Mencken.

The Skeptic by Terry Teachout

H.L. Mencken was Hunter S. Thompson before Hunter S. Thompson was Hunter S. Thompson.

In fact, I decided to look into this H.L. character upon coming across a passing comment referring to him in Gonzo. HST was a fan. Well, perhaps not a fan, but certainly aware of him, aware of Mencken’s contribution to American letters and therefore an influence and forefather of Thompson’s own potent prose and inimitable personality.

H. L. Mencken paved the road that Hunter S. Thompson came screaming down with his peyote-fueled typewriter of rage and style.

These two men, forefathers of modern journalism, have a lot in common and their similarities illuminate the world they were a part of and criticized so effectively. They were both journalists, columnists, and editors, fierce critics of culture and politics.

As Teachout shares in The Skeptic, “Mencken responded to Prohibition by selling his car and using the proceeds to purchase a large stock of “the best wines and liquors I could find,” stored in a homemade basement vault whose door bore a custom-painted sign emblazoned with a skull and crossbones: “This vault is protected by a device releasing Chlorine Gas under 200 pounds pressure. Enter it at your own Risk.” HST would have been proud.

H.L. Mencken gained widespread popularity and exposure with the infamous Scopes trial and HST gained notoriety while covering the ’72 Presidential Campaign. Both men’s success was intimately tied with magazines.

“I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine,” Mencken wrote to William Saroyan in 1936. “I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to Hell and learn from other editors how dreadful their job was on earth.”

And as all great men seem to be, both H.L. Mencken and Hunter S. Thompson were flawed. Mencken was an anti-Semite and Thompson a homophobe.

However useful an introduction to H.L. Mencken Teachout’s biography was, I did find it significantly lacking in two particular arenas.

First of all, it failed to share an adequate amount of Mencken’s own prose. Once the myth and drug-fascination with Hunter S. Thompson has waned, his legacy will be his words. And no matter how intriguing of a character Mencken was in his own right, his heritage seems to be the same. So I wanted more of Mencken’s writing.

Second, Mencken was an important American writer who had a significant influence on modern journalism and I wish Teachout had provided more of an analysis and study of Mencken’s lasting presence in our contemporary era. The closest Teachout got was a mere parenthetical aside: “Had they [conservatives] known of the extent to which his [Mencken] work in the twenties helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the America-hating adversary culture of the sixties, they might have repudiated him altogether.” But this second objection is probably more a manifestation of my own bias and interest in the similarities between Mencken and Thompson.

Though each man harbored intense and undeniable prejudices of the first order, they pursued sham and hypocrisy in all arenas of public life with unflagging diligence. But Mencken, faithfully secular, touched on religion too, which I haven’t come across much by HST on the topic. Did he weigh in on religion ever?

At the end of The Skeptic, Teachout sees in Mencken “a skepticism so extreme as to issue in philosophical incoherence.” But Teachout ultimately concludes that Mencken’s relevance and success is not a function of his particular convictions but rather of “the firmly balanced prose rhythms and vigorous diction in which they are couched. It is, in short, a triumph of style.”

The same can be said of HST. Despite HST’s failure to write that great novel, or to extend his initial success any further than the 70s, he lined up words in an order like no one else did. And for that, The Skeptic must be considered a success in that it makes me want to stop reading criticism and biographies of Mencken and instead turn to his books much in the same way that I was wearied by Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise and instead wanted to listen to the music.

As always, it’s best to shut up and listen.



Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

July 16th, 2008 at 11:30 am

So I’ve seen it: the latest documentary about author Hunter S. Thompson.

Surprise!

Gonzo The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

Directed by Alex Gibney (Best-Documentary-Oscar-Winning Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron-Smartest Guys in the Room), the HST documentary is called Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson.

Not to be confused with the oral biography, Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.

Let’s throw the usual fish in a barrel and shoot them: The book is better. It is far more exhaustive and illuminating, contains a larger cast of characters, and provides a more thorough, telling account of this singular man’s life.

Successful in its own right, Gibney’s documentary focuses on HST’s most significant and productive period of the 60s and 70s with plenty of time spent on his Nixon/Vietnam criticism paralleling the current Bush/Iraq fiasco.

Take plenty of Mescaline before viewing the documentary so as to thwart the nauseous effects provoked by the occasional re-enacted dramatizations. Otherwise, the documentary is thoroughly entertaining and provides a colorful glimpse into this beast’s life with unseen/heard home video and audio tapes. Especially enlightening was the footage of Thompson’s memorial service, in which his remains were fired out of a hundred foot tower capped by a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button, and his second wife Anita’s self-shot home video was a bizarre rabbit hole into the final day’s of Thompson’s life.

The end of the documentary strikes a somber note with some of those who knew him best wishing HST was still alive. He was a brutal, talented man, someone deeply needed in these queer times of ours.  His writing following September 11th and up to the Iraq War and his suicide is juxtaposed with recent images that reveal how eerily prescient the Good Doc has been. And always was. And could have still been.

How bad we could use him now.



GONZO: THE LIFE OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON

June 22nd, 2008 at 2:52 pm

“But don’t forget – The Scum Also Rises.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Gonzo Life of Hunter S. Thompson

There are enough texts examining and illuminating the myth of that great social and literary pyrotechnic Hunter S. Thompson, but an oral biography from the people who were closest to him seemed like a worthwhile read.

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson is a complete biography through Thompson’s zany life that manages to reveal a few intriguing tidbits about the man behind the legend. Hunter’s first wife, Sandy (now Sondi), had two abortions before their son Juan was born. After Juan was born she got pregnant five times but never came to term. There’s something darkly captivating about the potential of HST having 8 kids and the fact that nature did not let it happen.

A younger brother of Hunter was gay and died of AIDS. Why didn’t he write about this?

Aspen Sheriff and long-time friend of Hunter, Bob Braudis, relates a story about receiving a call from Hunter when one of Hunter’s girlfriend-assistants was unconscious on the kitchen floor and unresponsive. On the way to the hospital she stopped breathing. She survived, got better, and “went back to Cincinnati or wherever she came from.” Not everyone can, nor should, do drugs like Hunter S. Thompson. But how different would things have been had HST been in the news for killing a girl…it certainly would have tainted the Myth.

Beyond these few and far between, most of the book is not very enlightening for the ordained disciples of HST: he was a drug addict, he was an alcoholic, he was very smart, and he was a very good writer who absolutely failed to live up to his potential as a very, very good writer. What is also made very clear is that Thompson was certainly very charismatic but also a totally self-absorbed, unprofessional, childish, megalomaniac control freak. But people put up with a lot when you’re a brilliant genius. Which is why many of the chroniclers of HST’s life in this volume are so glib and blasé about this crazy drug fiend. First of all, they indulged and enjoyed in the same mortal pleasures, but also because they knew they were special for being lucky enough to be so close to the fire of this special man. A man who shined and burned out like no one else ever will.

The most illuminating of the many, many personal stories shared throughout the book is one in which Hunter, out of character, goes out of his way to help an injured friend. When the friend asks him why he is going to all the trouble, Hunter tells him, “I can’t stand to be around pain.”

Hunter S. Thompson couldn’t stand to be around pain. Explains a lot.

Thanks, book!



Hunter S. Thompson’s Widow to Author (Another) Book About Late Husband

June 3rd, 2008 at 8:53 am

Anita Thompson, widow of late great scribe/cultural icon/all-around-fiend Hunter S. Thompson, is set to publish a book about the final years of her famous husband’s life.

Which is great.

I love Hunter S. Thompson. But this latest publication, Ancient Gonzo Wisdom by Anita Thompson, is following pretty close on the heels of the not-too-long-ago-published The Gonzo Way by Anita Thompson.

Is the HST market becoming a bit over saturated? There’s also the not-too-long-ago-published Ralph Steadman memoir, The Joke’s Over, and Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.

I just wouldn’t want anyone to get tired of HST.

Great writers are captivating in large doses. Treacherous beasts are best in small doses. So one must tread carefully with HST.



Wall-E

May 7th, 2008 at 4:27 pm

So there’s this new movie coming out from the hard working people at Pixar called Wall-E. Perhaps you’ve heard of the hard working people at Pixar? They’re renowned for making “good” movies like Ratatouille, Cars, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc, A Bug’s Life, and the Toys Story.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Wall-E. It comes out June 27, 2008.

I liked Wall-E the first time when it was called Short Circuit.

Wall-E poster

Short Circuit poster

And the second time when it was called Short Circuit 2.

What was wrong with Short Circuit? Sure, Toy Story was a cute movie, but does it star Steve Guttenberg? Maybe they should have called it Shorty-C…

But if the hard working people at Pixar are so brilliant, why does Wall-E look like Johnny Five?

Wall-EShort Circuit

Sony’s going to sue somebody!

And there is no possible way that Wall-E will be able to compete with Short Circuit. It has one of the finest lines in the history of cinema:

“Hey, laser lips, your mother was a snow blower!”



Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

April 17th, 2008 at 7:23 pm

Hunter S. Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels is not nearly as “gonzo” or as good as his later writings and not nearly as fresh and fascinating as, say, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Hell’s Angels is a far more straightforward piece of journalism than HST’s later work but it is still an interesting read some 45 years on (certainly no small feat).

hellsangels.jpg

For one, it is cursorily interesting in how Hell’s Angels has quickly become outdated with references like, “Hell, eight dollars was a case of beer and gas back to Oakland.” Because now eight dollars will probably get you a 6-pack or enough gas to get out of the station.

But more importantly than that, Hell’s Angels, written about a 3-year period (‘64-‘66), describes a country’s utter fixation and fear about a perceived menace. And reading it in 2008, it all seems rather quaint and foolish. Motorcycle gangs? Really? The subtitle is “A Strange and Terrible Saga.” Reading it now, it just doesn’t seem very strange and terrible at all. And not much of a saga either.

And that makes me wonder about our current era’s perceived threats. Terrorists. Immigrants. Religious Fundamentalists. Health Care. Global Warming. Food Production. Disease. Radical Economists. Nefarious CEOs. Dwindling Natural Resources. Greedy and Compromised Politicians. Will they all seem quaint and insignificant in forty years?

I read books like The Shock Doctrine and Under the Banner of Heaven and Fiasco, and confidently throw them across the room in a violent rage knowing that I have found our age’s plague. How naïve and simple am I?

So what wicked monsters wait for us in the future to render our current perils dust bunnies in a dollhouse?

Hell’s Angels is important, like all of Thompson’s writing, for his uncanny ability to summarize the consequence of whatever it is he has set his special acuity upon, this case motorcycle gangs. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it was the American Dream and the 70s hippie movement. In Hell’s Angels, Thompson does not, nor did he ever, shy from bludgeoning his subjects with the cruel truth. HST had a special ability to place his topics in context, which, if you read Pierre Bayard, is all that matters.



Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson

March 25th, 2008 at 3:54 pm

“I always wanted to get into politics, but I was never light enough to make the team.” – Art Buchwald

ferloth1.jpg


From Hillary to how we eat, this cruel prose, now 36-years-old, is still as relevant and incisive as it ever was. Everyone deserves a dose of HST’s literary LSD-25 These Days, the ol’ fear and loathing. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is a raw, worthwhile Thompson-hit of black acid. So stick your tongue out.

Thompson’s political pondering is comprised mostly of the literary equivalent of adrenaline, bile, and dark humor. Until you realize that HST is being absolutely serious. It’s like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, some realities are so sick and twisted that you can’t play them straight. I can’t imagine anyone being able to untangle and analyze American Culture without having at least an iota of the paranoia, fear, and vindictiveness that Thompson naturally displays:

“And how many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?”

Bush and Gore? Bush and Kerry? McCain and Clinton?

“The assholes who run politics in this country have become so mesmerized by the Madison Avenue school of campaigning that they actually believe, now, that all it takes to become a Congressman or a Senator – or even a President – is a nice set of teeth, a big wad of money, and a half-dozen Media Specialists.”

As a betting man, a sports fan, and a sportswriter, politics and a presidential campaign are a perfect venue for HST.

“Political analysis was never my game, anyway. All I do is wander around and make bets with people, and so far I’ve done pretty well.”

He acerbically cuts through the bullshit with his wit and panache to reveal all the dirty details, maneuvers, statistics, and back-alley backstabbing of a presidential campaign.

“Superstar politicians and superstar quarterbacks have the same kind of delicate egos, and people who live on that level grow accustomed to very thin, rarified air. They have trouble breathing in lower altitudes; and if they can’t breathe right, they can’t function.”

Thompson’s imagery makes for the perfect metaphors to politics. His intimacy with subcultures, dark sects, and the dirty secrets of society come to a nice head when his potent powers converge to examine the ruthless world of politics. His fascination and enjoyment of guns, violence, explosions, and the rougher side of life find a worthy match when he is thrown into the brutal, unforgiving, outlaw landscape that is an American Presidential Election:

“A man on the scent of the White House is rarely rational. He is more like a beast in heat: a bull elk in the rut, crashing blindly through the timber in a fever for something to fuck. Anything! A cow, a calf, a mare – any flesh and blood beast with a hole in it.”

And beyond the paranoia, the drug-fueled ramblings, and indulgent digressions, Thompson is one smart sonofabitch. His analysis, journalism, and sheer unrivaled, unrequited gumption is not something to ignore or dismiss:

“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it – that we are really just a nation of 220 million [300 million?] used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”

Thompson is a fascinating writer to read because of his unforgiving honesty, his crude humanity. Reading him, you ride the roller coaster of his depression, his anger, his child-like excitement, and his incessant doubt and fear. His prose tumbles along with him, a textual mirror of his obsessive criticism. His diction oscillates from rambling diatribes to poignant observations to hilarious conjectures and dark, brooding epiphanies. His words remain remarkably fresh and true, the authentic thoughts of an uncompromised man, an individual continually mesmerized and haunted by the tortuous labyrinth of civilization that man had built around him.

“Liberalism itself has failed, and for pretty good reason. It has been too often compromised by the people who represented it.”

“The time had [has?] come to abolish the whole concept of the presidency as it exists now, and get a sort of City Manager-type president…We’ve come to the point where every four years this national fever rises up – this hunger for the Saviour, the White Knight, the Man on Horseback – and whoever wins becomes so immensely powerful, like Nixon [Bush?] is now, that when you vote for President today you’re talking about giving a man dictatorial power for four years. I think it might be better to have the President sort of like the King of England – or the Queen – and have the real business of the presidency conducted by…a City Manager-type, a Prime Minister, somebody who’s directly answerable to Congress, rather than a person who moves all his friends into the White House and does whatever he wants for four years. The whole framework of the presidency is getting out of hand.”



“The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” by Anita Thompson

August 1st, 2007 at 2:49 am

Just when the compounding deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni were making the world appear bleaker than life in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” there is news that Hunter S. Thompson’s widow has written a book about him.

The Gonzo Way

Wouldn’t you? You fuck, and eat, and do drugs with one of the era’s most relevant and exciting writers, how could you not have a few anecdotes to share with the world?I’m not sure about “Gonzo Way,” though. Kinda cheesy. And I’m not sure I want to “celebrate” him as much as I want to drink and revel as much as he did in “memory” of him. And maybe blow some shit up.



“The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” by Anita Thompson

August 1st, 2007 at 2:49 am

Just when the compounding deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni were making the world appear bleaker than life in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” there is news that Hunter S. Thompson’s widow has written a book about him.

Wouldn’t you? You fuck, and eat, and do drugs with one of the era’s most relevant and exciting writers, how could you not have a few anecdotes to share with the world?

I’m not sure about “Gonzo Way,” though. Kinda cheesy. And I’m not sure I want to “celebrate” him as much as I want to drink and revel as much as he did in “memory” of him. And maybe blow some shit up.