The New King of Gonzo Journalism
Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s, by Hunter S. Thompson, New York: Summit Books, 304 pages, $18.95
Holidays in Hell, by P.J. O'Rourke, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 257 pages, $16.95
And now let us speak of gonzo journalists. You might remember their heydey, in the late '60s and early '70s, when the likes of Tom Wolfe were busy stripping away the myth of the "objective journalist." To them, such a posture was all artifice, an unnecessary and artificial barrier between reporter and story. They viewed their own participation as part of the story.
Of their ranks, perhaps the most famous and celebrated was Hunter S. Thompson. When his style worked, it worked brilliantly. With the insightful and lucid Hells Angels, he established himself firmly on the journalistic map, astutely capturing the Angels' freewheeling lifestyle while scaling their reputation as sadistic monsters down to human proportions. He expanded this approach to journalism with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a "savage journey into the heart of the American Dream" that left readers wondering what was real and what was drug-induced hallucination.
It was in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, however, that Thompson found the perfect subject for his gonzo style. With acid commentary and outrageous verve, he relayed the white heat of a presidential campaign like a mad war correspondent, sending back twisted but accurate dispatches from the front. The man could write, damn it, and you could forgive his excesses and partisanship for his sheer panache.
But that was long ago. Fifteen years is a long time in the news business. And now, faced with Generation of Swine, a new collection of essays, we must ask ourselves: Has Hunter still got it?
The answer is, alas, no.
True, we must admit at the outset that the format of the book is not best suited to Thompson's talents. All the entries are culled from his biweekly newspaper column, despite the fact that Thompson has always worked better at longer lengths. Even so, he seems a shadow of his former self. Where he once became part of the story, he now seems content to watch it from a distance, dispensing high-octane scorn from his retreat in the Colorado Rockies. Thompson no longer weighs and evaluates, he merely slams (condemning any Republican in view). He is still occasionally interesting, but no longer insightful.
Thompson's antiquated worldview is hopelessly stuck in 1974. Indeed, Patrick Buchanan and Richard Nixon play far more important roles in these essays than do Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Mario Cuomo, or even Ronald Reagan. It is as if History As We Know It ended the day Nixon resigned, and all that has followed since is anticlimax. You see nary a mention of Afghanistan, unemployment, Gramm-Rudman, or Mikhail Gorbachev. He seems to regain interest around election time and during the Iran hearings, but only because they provide him an echo of his Watergate-era glory.
Perhaps the worst thing about Thompson is that he has become an unapologetic hack for the Democratic Party. Despite the likes of Mario Biaggi and Jim Wright, Thompson (save for an occasional shot at Gary Hart or Julian Bond) hasn't noticed a single crooked Democrat since the era of Hubert Humphrey. Indeed, he expresses open admiration for all the party's 1988 presidential candidates.
Thompson's apparent blindness on several topics is most puzzling. Although he decries the presence of crooks and jackals in public office, he never writes about the causes of their corruption. Not once does he consider the possibility that this so-called generation of swine might be the direct spawn of the lumbering monstrosity that our government has become. He slams those guzzling at the public trough but never seems to wonder about the size of the trough itself.
Thompson can still write like a crazed hyena on speed, but he no longer has anything to say. His writing is, like Macbeth's world, full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.
On the other hand, there is another, younger gonzo journalist who has quite a good deal to say and says it brilliantly in his new book, Holidays in Hell. An unabashed (if slightly twisted) conservative, as well as a former editor at National Lampoon, O'Rourke turned in a hilarious performance in 1986 with Republican Party Reptile. In Holidays, O'Rourke, like Thompson in his prime, wants to be a part of the world going by, and to that end he reports on events from the globe's most-troubled sites. As an official "Roving Humorist" for Rolling Stone, O'Rourke travels to such vacation spots as Lebanon, Managua, and Warsaw, giving us the straight dope from the depths of the world's worst hell-holes. Despite a propensity to view these locales through the bottom of a whiskey glass, O'Rourke's observations are on-target, insightful, and very, very funny.
He has a master's eye for the telling details of everyday existence. Such as changing currency in Managua: "Jim Denton went to the exchange window with $480 for our group [and] came back with 4,080,000 cordobas, which filled an entire Adidas gym bag.…you probably have to take economics over and over again two or three times at Moscow U. before you can make cash worth this little."
On life in Warsaw: "Communism doesn't really starve or execute that many people. Mostly it just bores them to death. Life behind the Iron Curtain is like living with your parents forever."
But, foreign countries are not the only locales that O'Rourke manages to visit. Indeed, he finds at least one equally frightening spot inside our very own nation: "My friend Dorothy and I spent a weekend at Heritage USA.…[We] came to scoff—but went away converted. Unfortunately, we were converted to Satanism."
O'Rourke is not afraid to take on anyone's sacred cow. El Salvador and Israel get their fair share of (justified) abuse. Take, for example, his observation that South Africans "don't say, like the Israelis, 'Arabs have a legal right to live in West Jerusalem, but they're afraid to.' They don't say, like the Americans, 'Indians have a legal right to live in Ohio, but, oops, we killed them all.' The South Africans just say, 'Fuck you.' I believe it's right there in their constitution—'Article IV: Fuck you. We're bigots.'"
Just as Thompson has a conclusion linking his essays (we're living in a generation of swine), so does O'Rourke. As he says in his introduction, "So-called Western Civilization, as practiced by half of Europe, some of Asia, and a few parts of North America, is better than anything else available. Western Civilization not only provides a bit of life, a pinch of liberty, and the occasional pursuance of happiness, it's the only thing that's ever tried to." It is O'Rourke's willingness to show us proof of that statement that makes his book more interesting, relevant, and amusing than Thompson's.
The King Is Dead. Long Live the New King.
Lawrence Person is a contributing editor to Nova Express magazine.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The New King of Gonzo Journalism".