Monday, July 27, 2009

MAKING FRIENDS WITH THE INTERESTS, UTILITIES, AND VALUES OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON WHILE TRYING TO COME OUT ALIVE ON THE OTHER SIDE

i work in a college writing center. during the summer, while we wait for students to tutor in writing, we have been asked to read and respond to various articles from certain college english journals. the following is a response i recently jotted. several of my close friends have thought it humorous, at one time or another, to get two or three beers down me and then ask my opinions on hunter s. thompson. from what i understand, they think it's funny to watch me get so riled up about one man and his books. well, this was written all under the influence of french roast coffee and flourescent lights. and some of this was written with an adopted air of thompsonian irrerevance. read with a light-heart and fire-side humor. and enjoy.

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Stiles, Stefani, and Randy Harris. “Keeping Curious Company: Wayne C. Booth’s Friendship Model of Criticism and the Work of Hunter S. Thompson.” College English 71.4 (2009): 313-337. Print.

I found Stiles and Harris’ (2009) article exploring the possible textual-friendship between literary critic Wayne Booth and journalistic sociopath Hunter S. Thompson vastly entertaining on several levels. First of all, the authors spend a great deal of time explicating Wayne Booth’s definitions of literary friendship, which I found interesting because literary friendships are not really any different that regular friendships except that literary friends are ethereal and real life friends are anatomical. Or so I thought. Booth had way more to say about literary friendships than I ever imagined could be said. And Stiles and Harris also said way more about all the way-more Booth said than I figured necessary. While I found this bit of the article interesting, I thought Stiles and Harris junked-up the over-jargon just to say “literary friends are like pen-pals you’ve never met, and who don’t actually return your personal letters.” Wouldn’t that have been sufficient? Of course not, because art, while it does imitate life, also requires way more words than real life demands. In real life, I might be tempted to say, “Hunter S. Thompson was my friend, even though I never met him, because we both like Bloody Mary mornings, cuss words and gold-plated lesbians”; however, such basic commonalities in art merely click the razorblade on the dusted mirror because, as Booth attests, there is much more available to the willing literary friend.

According to Booth, three categories of literary friendship exist: “those based on shared pleasures or interests; those based on utility; and the third, the most perfect kind, ‘complete friendships,’ which may begin in one or both of these other kinds of friendships, but which are complete only by virtue of deeply shared values” (Stiles and Harris, 316). In my example of literary friendship with Thompson, it appears that I shallowly rested at Booth’s first criteria for friendship (even though I don’t actually like Bloody Mary mornings or cuss words) by simply equating my pleasures and interests with Thompson’s. Luckily, Stiles and Harris have now craned Booth over my literary shoulder and charged me, through Booth’s voice, to give Thompson’s utilities and values a quick glance. I can only reply to such a charge: say what? The man leaped on his friend’s back to avoid stepping in a pool of pterodactyl blood, and he considered such caution a viable way of life! What values could we possibly share?

Therefore, and secondly, the article interested me because Thompson was the kind of man who would leap on his friend’s back to avoid stepping in a pool of pterodactyl blood. Though I fear Hunter S. Thompson (and loathe his writing) I cannot help harboring an intense fascination with all things “Gonzo.” In fact, two nights ago I picked up a four pack of Flying Dog’s Gonzo Imperial Porter, and I stared long at Ralph Steadman’s illustration on the beer’s label of Thompson’s skull biting a cigarette holder. It was classic “Gonzo” paraphernalia, filling me all at once with both wonder and the willies. In the title of their article, Stiles and Harris refer to literary friendship with Hunter S. Thompson as “Keeping Curious Company.” Curious company? I’m shocked any of us leave Thompson’s literary finales in a single piece: ethereally or anatomically speaking.

Finally, and going back to the article, I found it interesting that Stiles and Harris strayed so far in the end from their original thesis. What began as an exploration of Wayne Booth’s critical ideas concerning literary friendship quickly dissolved into a near whimpering mess of teenage angst and buzz-kill academic-party fouls. Stiles and Harris write with a chip on their shoulders. Somebody in the English department obviously mocked their Ralph Steadman tattoos. Somebody in the History department actually appreciates Nixon. Someone in the journalism department wrote a wicked good report on the Kentucky Derby that never mentioned photographers vomiting on rich ladies’ shoes. Stiles and Harris walked into this paper with a cheese tray of invitation and enlightenment, but flipped it all over to reveal blazing guns and jilted fists. In the next to final paragraph, Stiles and Harris declare:

The central intelligence orchestrating the characters, events, and commentaries reveals the weakness, delusions, and self-absorption that doom all who cannot put Thompson’s manic surface narrator into the appropriate perspective and draw the deeper lessons he offers for living well. The selves that we become as we read the best of Thompson’s work, finding nuance and clarity alongside scramble and chaos, are people who are more capable of understanding the world, our place in it, and the direction in which we need to move, always, to make it better. (335)

From literary critics to eighth graders pissy they can’t wear My Chemical Romance t-shirts to church youth group, Stiles and Harris lose the brilliance of their Booth presentation in a last ditch effort to blow their Gonzo cannons. I appreciated Stiles and Harris’ thesis, as well as my introduction to Wayne Booth; however, I also appreciate my own caution and unwillingness to award Hunter S. Thompson any golden thrones in American letters. Likewise, I do not consider myself weak, deluded, or self-absorbed for tightly holding to such a reading of Thompson. He was a fascinating figure, like a beetle sporting unnatural color patterns, but the directions he suggested in which we need to move, always, went no where better. He feared the nuance of actuality and loathed the clarity of sober relationship, so Thompson hid behind words, drugs, alcohol, and his own self-destructive prophecies. And it was from this place that he eventually dissolved himself altogether, fulfilling his own dream of the ultimate deconstructive act.

Perhaps, in some ways, Thompson strikes too close to home. Perhaps, like any good artist should, Thompson holds up a mirror rather than a window to his reader’s face. If that be the case, through reading Thompson I have watched myself leap on a friend’s back to avoid stepping in pterodactyl blood. I would not be surprised. However, if such a revelation holds the introductory ground where I met Thompson, I choose, as opposed to embracing Thompson, to run the other direction quickly. Thompson is not the one to seek for counsel out of such places. So while I thank Thompson for the literary mirror, I’ll be looking for other windows to escape such fates.

5 comments:

myleswerntz said...

ain't nothing wrong with seeing something as a mirror, but that doesn't mean you have to spend a lot of time looking in it. My own take on Thompson would be more of the second type--utility. It's not to say that all sources, literary or otherwise, can't be of the mutual enriching category, as friends are, but let's be honest--some sources are a whole lot harder to be attentive to than others.

good words. I try to be charitable with critiquing words or songs, but man, some words I can't defend. and such it is with Thompson. Good for some, but not for me.

Chaddie P. said...

Dearest Hamster,

Good words. You have a way of boiling down your thoughts into one emotive, intelligent, easy to swallow pill. Humorous and true. And in this, irony of ironies, you have much in common with Hunter S.

I appreciated Hunter when I first picked up Fear and Loathing. I followed him down the rabbit hole in The Great Shark Hunt, racking up library fines at the Waco library as I kept reading and re-reading.

But, I fell in love with Hunter while in China my second year, when a passing friend whom I met in Dali gifted me a copy of the early letters of Hunter S. When I got back to the states, I set about reading as much as I could get my hands on, including what I believe to be his greatest book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, an astute yet Gonzo analysis of the '72 presidential campaign.

Hunter's contribution, I believe, is only partially to what we call Literature with that capital "L". Hunter is first and foremost a journalist. Journalists are not comfortable with this designation because there is so much of Hunter in his journalism.

If all you know of Hunter is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you miss the essential Hunter. It's a great book, full of humor and, yes, wisdom, and most importantly, the book encapsulates the feelings of a generation who would grow up to give us the horrors of Reagan and the Bushies. Another irony, that those who loved Hunter in their youth would feel his essays turned against them in the 80s. Those "Pig-Fuckers."

And it was then that the literary world gave Hunter a niche and a label, and the only way to view his work or to appreciate him (or damn him) was as this radical drunkard who wrote about drugs and pig fuckers. He was/is more than that. It is the same way we dismiss folks like Townes Van Zandt as relevant only in as much as he represents a particular period in the development of country music.

But I digress.

Hunter got the beat down at the DNC Convention in Chicago. True he managed to also drink bourbon and smoke a joint whilst dodging the tear gas, but he was there for us to give us the story. He went to the Kentucky Derby with Steadman (and btw no one has mocked my tattoo recently) and chronicled one event emblematic of the American society as a whole. He followed the doomed McGovern campaign all over the country (drinking, yes, but also observing) and gave us hope that perhaps, just maybe, society could emerge from under Nixon better than it started. He gave voice to our disappointment that it didn't. When you read his letters, you also learn how he tried to preserve his little Colorado community from the coming of corporate interests, from turning into the a giant strip mall like the rest of country. He did this by running for Sheriff and almost winning, and in doing so he brought together members of the community who had not had a voice.

And I think this is Hunter's Legacy: from high school outcasts who quote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas like the Bible to long-haired bikers who enjoy stamping people's faces to folks like me who are simply societal malcontents, Hunter gives us a voice and with a voice hope.

chadly

the hamster said...

chaddy -

shit. this is why i miss long nights with you. a weekend trip. soon and for certain, i hope.

you've never led me astay. not once. and, you're right, my knowledge of HST is limited to little more than "kentucky derby", LAS VEGAS, and THE GREAT SHARK HUNT. i'll spend some time soon with CAMPAIGN TRAIL. i'll spend some time with it and get back to you.

did you really get a ralph steadman tattoo?

thanks for sharing your thoughts. i'm not sure i understand how thompson's writings offer hope, so i'd like to chat some more about it.

by the way, i have your donald ray pollock book bound and ready to send. are you back in arkansas? i guess i could call to ask you.

amor.

Chaddie P. said...

Hamster,

We are back in the AR. I start back to work at the library in a week. Trying to get all things in order before that day. I'd love to see you. Come on up.

Latonya said...

i'd have to agree with the husband, i don't know how the hunter could possibly offer hope however, all my thompson knowledge is direct hearsay from the hamster.

love- my favorite lines from this post include:

"Of course not, because art, while it does imitate life, also requires way more words than real life demands." -i have to agree

"From literary critics to eighth graders pissy they can’t wear My Chemical Romance t-shirts to church youth group, Stiles and Harris lose the brilliance of their Booth presentation in a last ditch effort to blow their Gonzo cannons." -imagery here is fantastic, i can see both the explosive cannon and pimple faced 8th graders

okay, that's all for now. well done love.
"Somebody in the English department obviously mocked their Ralph Steadman tattoos." -funny, very funny