A coked-out prophet
Thompson's Kingdom of Fear combines memoir, abuse, polemic, satire, and diablerie, a nice line in prophecy.india Updated: Jun 07, 2003 15:39 IST
Kingdom of Fear
Hunter S Thompson
Price: 16 pounds
Kingdom of Fear combines memoir, polemic, satire, abuse, diablerie, and something new for Hunter Thompson — a nice line in prophecy. It opens with a memory of childhood, but this being Thompson’s childhood, the memory is of a nine-year-old’s battle with the FBI “in the case of a federal mailbox being turned over in the path of a speeding bus”. This was in Louisville, Kentucky, where the author spent his formative years. New York, San Francisco, Big Sur and Rio de Janeiro came later.
After Rio, “suffering from amoebic dysentery and culture shock”, he retired at 29 to hunt elk and breed Doberman pinschers in a fortified compound at Woody Creek, Colorado, where much later he beat a rap for sexual assault and also ran for county sheriff — the memoir elements of this present book. No one can accuse Thompson of not living his philosophy: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
Little Hunter and his school friends were guilty of the mailbox crime. As a federal offence, mailbox vandalism carried a five-year sentence. But this was not mindless violence, it was purposeful. Even then, it seems, he adhered to the Bob Dylan dictum he loves to quote: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” The mailbox was part of an elaborate scheme to get “revenge on a rude and stupid bus driver who got a kick out of closing his doors and pulling away just as we staggered to the top of the hill and begged him to let us on”.
The avengers, using ingenuity and speed, ropes and pulleys, created a booby-trap with the mailbox. When the bus driver sped away, he became an agent of his own destruction, smashing into the mailbox that was yanked into the path of his bus. Subsequently, refusing to confess or crack under questioning, Hunter (“What witnesses?”) is declared innocent, and everything works out fine. A new bus driver is hired, and a lesson is learned: “Never believe the first thing an FBI agent tells you about anything.”
This is more of a Huck Finn than a Tom Sawyer story, but the tone is unmistakable, which is to say that when he is in the zone, in full flow, there is no one like him. “I have seen thousands of priests and bishops and even the pope himself transmogrified in front of our eyes into a worldwide network of thieves and perverts and sodomites who relentlessly penetrate children of all genders and call it holy penance for being born guilty in the eyes of the church. Whoops! I have wandered off on some kind of vengeful tangent here.”
Reviewers have despairingly characterised Thompson’s persona as a coked-out prophet in the Book of Revelation, a hillbilly bookworm on speed, a psychopath with an arsenal of high-powered weapons, a paranoid gun junkie, a womaniser, a drunk and worse. While all these descriptions are provable in various degrees, the truth is far weirder: most of the time he is a strangely modest man, a serious thinker, a great wit, a superb satirist and a sports fan. He is 60-something, and he grew up, as I did, at a time when the greatest American writers were remote and powerful figures.
It is impossible now for any American under the age of 60 to understand the literary world just after the second world war, the magic that fiction writers exerted on the public, and how they bewitched the imaginations of those of us who wished to be writers ourselves.
The modern equivalent would be a rock star but the comparison doesn’t work, because the rock star is an ephemeral public figure, and the writer-heroes of Thompson’s youth were famous recluses and disreputable heroes. Henry Miller comes to mind. He was one of many borderline outlaws, but in an age of censorship — the Chatterley ban and all that — all writing is a dodgy business. Until the past 20 years or so, writers were not accessible to the public. They were not visible, they were the more powerful for being somewhere else, only whispered about, outrageous things.
Thompson is probably the last American writer of that kind. “He is known as an avid reader, a relentless drinker and a fine hand with a .44 Magnum,” ran the author’s note on his first book, Hell’s Angels (1966). But a kind of magic still attaches to Thompson.
My own feeling is that the magic arises not from the self-promotion, the publishing hype, or the living-legend stuff. I think Thompson has remained a writer of significance because, essentially a satirist, he has displayed an utter contempt for power — political power, financial power, even showbiz juice.
He chose for his first book-length subject the Hell’s Angels motorcyclists. He rode with them, chronicled their lives and customs. They were an outlaw tribe, living at the edge of society, and he identified with their need for space, love of binges and hatred of authority.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, probably the best book ever written about that city, began as an assignment to write about a motorcycle race. The prospect of writing about the Honolulu marathon induced him to visit Hawaii, and the result was personal history, Hawaiian mythology and the usual mayhem in The Curse of Lono.
Last year, well before the Iraq war, Thompson wrote: “We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world — a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us. George W. Bush does not speak for me or my son or my mother or my friends or the people I respect in this world.”
That is included in this book, along with another prescient piece, written on September 12, 2001, in which he predicted “a religious war, a sort of Christian jehad, fuelled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerrilla warfare on a global scale... We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once.”
One of my favourite Thompson pieces was written after the death of Richard Nixon. As the funeral orations were being delivered and everyone was praising Nixon, Thompson wrote He Was a Crook, one of the best, the funniest, the most sustained polemics I have ever read. Midway through it, in a burst of candour, Thompson reflects on his harsh words and says, “but I have written worse things about Nixon many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it.”
Kingdom of Fear is angry, prophetic, full of vitality and enormously funny. In almost 40 years of battling the Confederacy of Dunces, Thompson’s energy has not flagged. He is not coy about his choice of poisons, but asked specifically about it in a piece here (‘Yesterday’s Weirdness is Tomorrow’s Reason Why’) he makes a nice reply: “I haven’t found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as a sitting at a desk writing, trying to imagine a story no matter how bizarre it is, as much as going out and getting into the weirdness of reality and doing a little time on the Proud Highway.”