A Learning Curve

Written at the request of Irish writer Martin Flynn, for his website HST for Beginners. Martin asked me to write about the differences I perceived between Hunter S Thompson and his alter ego, Raoul Duke. He also asked me to comment about the state of Gonzo in the post-Hunter world.

I. Hunter and Duke

Photograph of Hunter S. Thompson by Edmund Shea

I was a reporter and anyone who’s worked in that lonely trade knows the frustration. You know a story. You know what needs to be said. You just can’t find anyone to say it.

You can’t make up a quote. Given the rules of journalism, you can’t do that shit. So you struggle and sometimes your story falls short.

However, in Gonzo journalism the rules – such as they are – are quite different.

Raoul Duke began appearing in Hunter S. Thompson’s writing back in the days when he was the sports editor of the Command Courier, the official newspaper of Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. It was the late fifties and when Hunter couldn’t find a bystander or a source or an expert to say what he wanted, he quoted “Raoul Duke.”

Hunter, of course, was Raoul Duke.

Looking back on Hunter’s stories, you see quotes from people Duke and Bloor and Squane, and they are all Hunter Thompson. He invented these people to say the things that needed to be said. It turned parts of his journalism into fiction, but he was fond of reminding his readers that there was often greater truth to be found in fiction.

Raoul Duke has a special place in this pantheon on phantoms. It was the name Hunter plucked from his past to use as his nom de plume when he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for Rolling Stone. The work was serialized as the work of Duke in two issues in November 1971. Hard to believe that that magnificent bit of prose is more than forty years old.

As a young reader, I was confused. Who was this Duke guy and why did he have his messages sent – as reported midway through one of the episodes – care of someone named Hunter S. Thompson?

The confusion continued with regard to Duke and Hunter. Where did one stop and the other begin?

All these years later, we know much more about Hunter and Duke and Las Vegas. Hunter was compulsive about documenting his life, in photographs and on tape. Now that selections from his personal tape recordings have been made available to the public – in a handsome boxed set edition called The Gonzo Tapes – it’s possible to hear his dictated observations and comments as he lives the experience that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

He certainly doesn’t sound like a foaming-at-the-mouth madman running amuck in Las Vegas. If anything, he is the opposite – lucid, inquisitive, thoughtful, observant.

But in the writing, he took himself and amped up the madness lurking in his brain. And that’s when Duke emerged.

What happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. But Hunter took those events – and his personality – and heightened the reality. He once told me, “I warped a few things. It was an incredible feat of balance more than literature.” When published in book form, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was credited to “Hunter S. Thompson,” not Raoul Duke.

Problem was, readers thought the exaggerated caricature called Raoul Duke was Hunter S. Thompson. Though they shared the same DNA, they were not identical twins.

The Duke caricature followed him the rest of his life. It was a role that the real man could easily adopt and play, pleasing his fans. On signal, he could perform as Duke. But he was not the same without an audience.

And so he was caught in the duality. He had created the Duke character, one of the great literary inventions of his time. It was a brilliant achievement.

And it was also a burden. It might have been a trap. If he cast off the Duke persona, would his readers follow him? Or would it be like slitting the throat of the golden goose?

It was a problem he wrestled with, apparently without resolution, until the end of his life.

II. Gonzo: May it Unrest in Peace

It’s not hard for me to recall my life as a college freshman. When I was a young and impressionable writer, I fell under the spell of Hunter S. Thompson.

It was the early 1970s and after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his presidential campaign coverage in Rolling Stone, I became a committed fan.

I worked for a small daily newspaper in the Midwest then, and we passed around the newsroom a tattered and disintegrating Fear and Loathing paperback and spoke of it as Holy Writ.

I once tried to write like him. I went to Naked City, Indiana, one of the Midwest’s largest nudist colonies, to cover the Mister and Miss Nude America contests.

It was a disturbing and weird day, ripe for the gonzo-journalism treatment, with pantsless grannies and nudist master sergeants weary of the voyeuristic mobs that came to watch strippers strut and body builders romp naked.

But after two long Saturdays struggling with the story, I came to this important conclusion: only one person could write like Hunter S. Thompson. And it wasn’t me.

As I said, I was young (17) and impressionable. I’m glad I figured that out then, rather than wasting a few years of this short life imitating someone else.

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve faced the same problem from the other side of the table. Young people, enamored of Thompson (or Kurt Vonnegut or David Foster Wallace or Joan Didion . . . fill in the blank) say they want to write like their hero. “You want to write gonzo?” I ask the Thompson fans. “Sure, go right ahead.” When they fail miserably, I tell them, “See, only one person could write like that and he’s dead.” Pause. “But only one person can write like you.”

Hunter S. Thompson may be the best friend a writing teacher can have. He gives us an example of writing with wit, grace and a unique style. And those who try to imitate that style soon learn how much work went into creation of those masterpieces of non-fiction writing. Through trying and failing to write gonzo, students learn how to unmask their own (pardon the redundancy) style.

So don’t write gonzo. Write what you write.

In another context and speaking of another great artist, Johnny Cash once wrote this:
There are those who do not imitate,
Who cannot imitate
But then there are those who emulate
At times, to expand further the light
Of an original glow.
Knowing that to imitate the living
Is mockery
And to imitate the dead
Is robbery
There are those
Who are beings complete unto themselves
Whole, undaunted, — a source
As leaves of grass, as stars
As mountains, alike, alike, alike,
Yet unalike
Each is complete and contained
And as each unalike star shines
Each ray of light is forever gone
To leave way for a new ray

Johnny was writing about Bob Dylan for the liner notes for Nashville Skyline, but these words might just as well have been written about Hunter.