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The Gonif of Gonzo

THE PROUD HIGHWAY Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 By Hunter S. Thompson Edited by Douglas Brinkley, Villard: 652 pp., $29.95

June 29, 1997|PAUL KRASSNER | Paul Krassner is the publisher of the countercultural journal The Realist and the author of numerous books, including his latest collection of satiric sketches, "The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race" now in paperback from Seven Stories Press. His album, "Brain Damage Control," will be released in July by Mercury Records

Imagine how Hunter Thompson might have covered the O.J. Simpson trial. Phil Bronstein, executive editor at the San Francisco Examiner, told me, "I thought Hunter would be the perfect person to write about the trial." They even met at a waterfront restaurant to discuss that possibility.

"Hunter's face was all banged up," Bronstein recalled. "He claimed he had gone night-diving and scraped his face on a rock. The waiter had some glandular problem [causing his eyes to bug out], but Hunter accused him of staring at him. Then he started telling me about these rumors he heard from friends in the L.A. coroner's office about nasty activities with dead bodies, including the infamous bodies involved in the Simpson case. Teeth marks on the butt and things like that. He said that he would cover the trial if we put him up at the Chateau Marmont in a suite with three satellite dishes, four fax machines and several assistants."

Inevitably, the assignment was withdrawn. But this was not the first time that Thompson had made such a demand. Art Kunkin, who published the Los Angeles Free Press, told me: "He wanted me to put him up at the Chateau Marmont, and I wouldn't do it, and he threatened to kill me. He was pissed at me for not having the kind of budget to do that."

And Lee Quarnstrom, an executive editor at Hustler magazine who wanted to interview Thompson, told me, "Hunter wanted $5,000 for the interview. He said, 'Get Larry Flynt to kick in some of his money.' I said, 'Well, we don't pay for Q & A's.' So he called me back and he said, 'OK, I'll do the interview for nothing, if Hustler will fly us both to Bora Bora and you can conduct the interview on a veranda as we sip mai tais and watch the sun set into the Pacific.' I didn't hold it against him. I didn't think it was sleazy. I just thought it was opportunistic. Why not give it a shot?"

Thompson has become more a caricature of himself than Raoul Duke, the comic-strip character based on him in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury." And now in "The Proud Highway," a thick collection of Thompson's letters from 1955 to 1967, one can follow the early footsteps of his gonzo path, eavesdropping on the constant struggle between his opportunism and his self-destructiveness. Consider his employment record. Thompson sought jobs at various publications--from the Village Voice to the Washington Post--in the same letters in which he rampaged against those publications. He was fired from Time magazine for insubordination and from the Middletown Daily Record in New York for kicking a candy machine--"which rendered the coin slot obsolete," he boasted in one of the collection's letters--but he resigned from the National Observer when they refused to publish his review of Tom Wolfe's "The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" because it was too glowing.

"The Proud Highway's" cover promises in the subtitle, "The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume I," but this is misleading, since both "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72" were published after 1967, so there is no correspondence in this book referring to either one. However, the phrase "fear and loathing" (borrowed from Soren Kierkegaard) does creep into one of the collection's letters that Thompson wrote to his friend, novelist William Kennedy, having just heard of President Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963: "There is no human being within 500 miles [of his home in Woody Creek, Colo.] to whom I can communicate anything--much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today's murder." Three years later, he wrote: "If my neighbors in Woody Creek could read my mail, they'd have me locked up."

In the book's introduction, editor Douglas Brinkley states: "The letters within these pages are only a fraction of the approximately 20,000 Thompson has composed since he was a young boy. . . . [He] corresponded ferociously, always making carbon copies, hoping they would be published someday as a testament to his life and times. 'These were the pre-Xerox days,' Thompson has commented about his surprising pack-rat nature. 'And I was anal retentive in my desire to save everything.' Thompson lugged his bulging correspondence around with him in trunks, believing that someday it would be his nest egg." In 1959, he wrote to an Air Force buddy, "Perhaps I'll try to publish my collected letters before, instead of after, I make history."

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