In some moods, Thompson denied he was a reporter at all. “I’m a writer,” he told Playboy. “Nobody gives Norman Mailer this kind of shit. I’ve never tried to pose as a goddamn reporter. I don’t defend what I do in the context of straight journalism.” But he never denied he was some kind of journalist; it was just that he was ambivalent about the whole enterprise. “The best people in journalism”—David Halberstam and Harrison Salisbury were two he always praised—“I’ve never had a quarrel with. I am a journalist, and I’ve never met, as a group, any tribe I’d rather be a part of or that are more fun to be with.” Or so he told McKeen in 1990. Two years earlier, in his introduction to A Generation of Swine, he’d written that “I have spent half my life trying to get away from journalism, but I am still mired in it—a low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange seedy world of misfits and drunkards and failures.” (Gee, Hunter, you say it like it’s a bad thing.) Thompson was hardly the consummate professional: editors often had to piece together and sequence the fragments he turned in for publication. On the other hand, he was a meticulous stylist, seldom if ever guilty of grammatical lapses, and his reputation—richly deserved—as a drug-crazed Lord of Misrule obscured a more-than-Protestant work ethic. He often started writing after everyone else had turned in or passed out, but he knew “you’ve got to have pages in the morning. I measure my life in pages. If I have pages at dawn, it’s been a good night.”
Thompson’s great journalistic innovation, though, was to subvert the very idea of journalism. In his best work, the real story was Thompson getting the story—as in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and even in his far more conventional 1966 book Hell’s Angels—or better still, failing to get it, as in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After snagging an assignment to cover a motorcycle race in the desert for Sports Illustrated (which rejected the copy he turned in), Thompson traveled to Vegas with Oscar Zeta Acosta, an activist Chicano attorney and fellow drug aficionado whom he was trying to interview for another piece, and ran amok. “We were somewhere near Barstow,” his report began, “on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” What follows is a phantasmagoria involving speeding cars, casinos, drug abuse, a National District Attorneys
Conference on drug abuse, the “American Dream”—on which subject Thompson had been contracted to do a book for Random House, and which turned out to be the name of a burned-down nightclub—and, incidentally, the Mint 400 motorcycle race. Thompson calls himself Raoul Duke; Acosta has become a Samoan named Dr. Gonzo. The expenses they ran up, according to McKeen, caused American Express to ban Thompson for life. As to its journalistic value, the whole book is, as they say, too good to check.
Thompson, for whom modesty was no virtue, called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a “masterwork . . . . It’s as good as The Great Gatsby and better than The Sun Also Rises.” We can argue about the merits of this comparison, but it’s telling that he chose to measure his work against two novels. (Fear and Loathing has been called a novel, but not by Thompson himself.) To think of fiction as a nobler calling is the journalist’s traditional mode of self-disparagement—the novel-in-the-drawer syndrome—and Thompson, an original in most other respects, took the cliché to heart. In 1979, journalist Toby Thompson (no relation) plucked up his courage and told him: “ ‘Everything you publish these days seethes with a contempt you bring to journalism.’ Hunter stared at me. ‘There are not many people who get that,’ he said.” As a young writer, Thompson would type out passages from Faulkner and Hemingway to absorb their styles; when he was in his sixties, he still felt “I was basically meant for higher things. Novels.” His first serious work, in 1961, was a novel called The Rum Diary, which he finally published, in much-revised form (and to little acclaim) in 1999. In a 1993 interview for Spin, Thompson told Kevin Simonson, “I always had and still do have an ambition to write fiction. I’ve never had any real ambition within journalism, but events and fate and my own sense of fun keep taking me back for money, political reasons, and because I’m a warrior.”