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Fear, Loathing and the Birth of Gonzo

by Kevin McEneaney
Reviewed by Antonia Shoumatoff

Kevin McEneaney has managed to firmly place Hunter Thompson and his gonzo genre within the pantheon of American literature in a keen and incisive analysis of Thompson’s gallery of off-beat writings.  The cult classic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, made into a major motion picture, continues to have popular appeal and was actually given a glowing review in its time by the New York Times Book Review, by Crawford Woods.  This reviewer was surprised to find a first edition of the book in the library of her millennial offspring, who continue to be tantalized by Thompson’s disturbingly edgy writing style, just as jazz age readers were intrigued by Fitzgerald and fifties readers could not get enough of the beat poets.

McEneaney, who has taught American literature on the college level at Marist College, says that “If Thompson did not succeed in penning the Great American Epic, then he certainly created an enduring masterpiece equaling or exceeding his admiration for The Great Gatsby…..Thompson’s gallery of observer/participant Mind-Warp [writing]…not only offer an ironic summation of the sixties, but provides the Southern answer to Norman Mailer’s much-vaunted East Coast ambition to write the Great American novel.”

Drawing parallels from Thurber to Rabelais, and more recently William Burroughs and Kurt Vonnegut, the book succeeds in capturing the uniquely American ’outlaw language’ that made Thompson so notorious: “The music of the language resembles speedy yet lyrical guitar riffs—like Keith Richards, in good form.”  Of course it is exactly the forbidden “drug argot” and satirical anti-authoritarian speech that thumbs its nose at corporate and media propaganda that continues to have broad appeal for this generation.  Douglas Brinkley said that Thompson at the time “considered Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to be a ‘political statement’ against Nixonian authoritarianism and the Vietnam War.”

“Young people,” says McEneaney, “most of Thompson’s audience from generation to generation, respond to the instinctive imagination of freedom.”  And yet, despite the ‘impishly adolescent’ style and thought patterns that Thompson uses, according to McEneaney’s analysis, he is also brilliant at using humor and satire to poke fun at the American Dream and political hypocrisy.  He correlates this with other satirists such as Orwell in Animal Farm  and Vonnegut’s satirization of the arms race in Cats Cradle.

McEneaney maintains that Hunter Thompson’s adroit cultural analysis which was both timely and prophetic is what gives him an enduring relevance.  Thompson is not the first anti-hero writer that McEneaney has written a book about: he has also explored the eccentric world of Tom Wolfe in Tom Wolfe’s America: Heroes, Pranksters and Fools; Russell Banks: In Search of Freedom established Banks as a leader of postmodern, neo-realist tradition in American fiction.”

One wonders what pithy and scathing commentary Thompson would have for the current 2016 Presidential Campaign. The current situation resonates with absurd parallels sketched  in Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.  Thompson ruminated over George McGovern’s loss saying: “If George McGovern had a speech writer half as eloquent as [Chief] Sitting Bull, he would be home free today…..but the old Chief’s baleful analysis of the White Man’s rape of the American continent was just as accurate then [in 1877] as it would be today if he came back from the dead and said it for the microphones on prime-time TV.  The ugly fallout from the American Dream has been coming down on us at a pretty consistent rate since Sitting Bull’s time—and the only difference now, with Election Day ’72 only a few weeks away, is that we seem to be on the verge of ratifying the fallout and forgetting the Dream itself.”

McEneaney’s fascinating and sometimes odd compendium of biographical information about Hunter Thompson make for a good read, for both Thompson enthusiasts and those who want to know more about this larger than life personality who had himself shot out of a cannon after death.  McEneaney’s book also establishes why Thompson’s main work is a classic in the genre of pinpointing the national incompetence and moneyed corruption that seems to be a perennial theme across the American landscape as well as in American literature.  Le plus ça change, le plus c’est la même chose.


Fear, Loathing and the Birth of Gonzo 

  • Hardcover: 306 pages
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (June 9, 2016)
  • ISBN: 1442266201