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.”
Apparently he was just born that way. In McKeen’s words, he was “wired different.” His elementary-school principal in Louisville, Kentucky, called him “Little Hitler,” and one schoolmate recalled that he “almost had demonic power.” When he was nine, FBI agents came to his parents’ door, accusing him of vandalizing a mailbox; he missed his high-school graduation because he was serving a jail term for ripping off somebody’s wallet. “What do you think made Hunter the way he is?” his straight-arrow older brother, a Cleveland insurance man, asked one of their boyhood friends at Thompson’s memorial. Thompson himself once speculated that “there may be some genetic imperative that caused me to get into certain situations”—or, as he put it in his Playboy interview, he was “a natural freak.”