Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Still fearful & loathsome after 38 years

I'm ashamed to say as a journalist that I had never read "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Hunter S. Thompson's 'Gonzo Journalism' novel, until recently.

Thompson wrote the semi-autobiographical novel - about a drug-fueled, fast paced trip to Vegas - nearly 40 years ago. But as far as I can tell, the book is just as culturally relevant today as it was in the Acid Age.

And as a work of New Journalism, "Fear and Loathing" may be even more important today.

Lofflin and I have seen first-hand the dramatic changes taking place in journalism, especially in the age of Internet-first publication. But I think Lofflin would agree that one thing missing from digital journalism is many reporters just don't know how to tell a good story anymore.

Thompson may have had a spotty relationship with the truth, but he sure as hell knew how to spin an entertaining tale.

Although it's different in numerous ways, Thompson's book hails from the same New Journalism era that spawned "Blue Highways," by William Least Heat-Moon - a book Lofflin and I hold close to our hearts. (I'm sure Lofflin and I will both blog about Least Heat-Moon in the future.)

A more contemporary example of the genre can be found in James McManus' "Positively Fifth Street." McManus' non-fiction poker book was clearly influenced by Thompson; in "Fear and Loathing," Thompson's character (aka Raoul Duke) is dispatched to Vegas to write about a motorcycle race, but he blows his advance money on a carload of drugs. McManus is sent to Vegas to cover a murder trial, and he uses his advance money to enter the World Series of Poker. "Positively Fifth Street" is a good read.

The thing I'll take away from "Fear and Loathing" is Thompson's use of humor. Some writers are naturally funny; others, myself included, have to work really hard at delivering humor in written form. Thompson finds humor in playing it straight during bizarre situations.

That's what good comedy is all about.

And that's what good journalism is about, too.

For a shorter, but still brilliant example of Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo Journalism, check out this story he wrote in 1970 about the Kentucky Derby.

--Matt Kelsey

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