Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson

by William McKeen

W. W. Norton, 448 pages, $27.95

Conversations With Hunter S. Thompson

Edited by Beef Torrey and Kevin Simonson

University Press of Mississippi
, 240 pages, $22

“Well, fuck the Columbia Journalism Review,” Hunter S. Thompson said in a 1974 Playboy interview, responding to a question about CJR’s attacks on his objectivity and credibility. The only hope for the Review, he wrote four years later, in The Great Shark Hunt, would come when “the current editor dies of brain syphilis.” A lot of water’s gone over the dam since then—or else you wouldn’t be reading this—and the scandalous and scurrilous Thompson’s ashes have been launched, according to his wishes, from a custom-designed cannon over his home in Woody Creek, Colorado, to the tune of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

The gala sendoff after his suicide in 2005 cost $2.5 million. The money was put up by his friend Johnny Depp, who played him in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam’s here-today-gone-tomorrow film of Thompson’s most enduring book. By then, Thompson had become—to his obvious pleasure, and perhaps to his private consternation—a revered, if still bracingly disreputable, figure in American literature. The term “gonzo,” which he first embraced and then came to dislike, had made it into the Oxford English Dictionary: “A type of committed, subjective journalism characterized by factual distortion and exaggerated rhetorical style.” His friends and admirers included such respectables as George Plimpton, Ed Bradley, Charles Kuralt, and Douglas Brinkley, who became his literary executor. George McGovern was the featured speaker at his funeral. And in The Wall Street Journal (of all places), Tom Wolfe compared him to Mark Twain and judged him “the greatest comic writer of the 20th century.”

But the old enmity between Thompson and mainstream journalism lives again in two new books: William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson and a paperback collection of interviews and profiles called Conversations With Hunter S. Thompson. They deserve to be read together. Even a biography as thorough as McKeen’s has room for only so many digressive glimpses of the man, and you don’t want to miss Richard Keil’s white-knuckle account of sitting in the passenger seat with Thompson at the wheel, or the self-styled Doctor’s judicious diagnosis (from Ron Rosenbaum’s 1977 High Times interview) of Jimmy Carter’s mix of Puritanism and libertarianism: “He’d put me in jail in an instant if he saw me snorting coke in front of him. He would not, however, follow me into the bathroom and try to catch me snorting it.”

Both books devote much attention to Thompson’s running feud with the journalistic establishment—and his attraction to it. As a young and unknown reporter for the National Observer, he initiated a cheeky correspondence with arch-insider and Washington Post publisher Philip Graham, concluding one letter with, “I’m beginning to think you’re a phony, Graham.” It was a paradoxical, even perverse, way of courting approval. But it worked—they were pen pals until Graham’s suicide in 1963—as, in the long run, Thompson’s provocations usually did. Had Graham lived, Thompson once speculated, the founder (and really, sole practitioner) of gonzo journalism “could have been the editor of The Washington Post.”

Where Thompson and the mainstream diverge most glaringly is over the question of objectivity. Of course even the most rigid journalistic purist would agree that, strictly speaking, there can be no such thing: what the word really means is a good-faith effort to be fair and (though the expression has become miserably discredited) balanced. But Thompson’s sense of morality overrode any impulse he might have had to place himself at a remove and see both sides of a story. “Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long,” he told Matthew Hahn in a 1997 interview with Atlantic Online. “You can’t be objective about Nixon.” In Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, his account of the 1972 presidential race originally published in Rolling Stone, Thompson’s liberation from the constraints of objectivity produces both a flow of ecstatic invective—Hubert Humphrey, he writes, is “a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler”—and such novelistic insights as Edmund Muskie’s talking “like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year’s crop.” Some reporters from the mainstream press had contempt for this flouting of professionalism. Others, according to his Rolling Stone colleague Timothy Crouse, got “a vicarious, Mittyesque thrill” from reading what they secretly thought but were forbidden to say. Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern’s chief political adviser, called Thompson’s dispatches “the most accurate and the least factual” reporting on the campaign.

David Gates is the author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls and a collection of stories, The Wonders of the Invisible World. He is a former senior editor at Newsweek, where he wrote about books and music, and his nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, The Oxford American, The Journal of Country Music, and many other publications.