Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson reviewed by Steve Miller
Jul 16, 2008, 00:40
OUTLAW JOURNALIST: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON by William McKeen; W.W. Norton & Co., 2008
Here's yet another book on Hunter S. Thompson, who remains a favorite to name-drop among both the semi-literate Hollywoodites (Johnny Depp, John Cusak) and never-to-be-published writers (check your local college creative writing class).
Such an endeavor is fat with the potential for redundancy. Most of the sweat has been wrung from Thompson's mean-spirited, dead body. In the wake of his 2005 suicide, we have already seen books by the ever-creepy Jann Wenner as well as a tome called The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson from a couple of Thompson's drinking pals; a documentary called Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and too many half-assed, faux-Gonzo-styled tributes to name.
So the entry of Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson at your local Barnes & Noble threatens to be just another entry in the HST Sweepstakes, in which many of those entrants seek only for some literary cred by attaching their name to a man some perceive as a legend.
Outlaw Journalist outdoes all of its competition, though, a finely-honed and well-researched and reported collection of anecdotes, quotes, quips and tall tales, including a number you've never read or heard, well told by author McKeen, whose sense of humor makes any anecdote compelling.
His interviews are well chosen. McKeen is wise enough to stay away from groupies like Depp and focus on those who truly knew the subject, including widow Anita Thompson, ex-gal pal Laila Nabulsi, Hunter friend and historian in his own right, Douglas Brinkley, Deborah Fuller, Thompson's assistant for 23 years; Bob Braudis, Thompson's best friend and, for good measure, artist Ralph Steadman.
And when he doesn't have the interviews to lift the material, McKeen is masterful at narrating an event. His skillful account of Thompson's stab at a piece on skier Jean-Claude Killy welds various accounts and brings new life to the worn tale of HST's frustration at a profile of the deadly dull, dim athlete.
The report on Thompson's experience with presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 is likewise excellent, pulling sources from a number of places and weaving in McKeen's own interviews.
A meeting with Clinton at an eatery in Little Rock, Ark., is arranged between Thompson, Wenner, Rolling Stone political editor William Greider and satirist P.J. O'Rourke. HST “was not enamored of Clinton because of the candidate's cop-out response when asked about his marijuana use in the 60sâ€¦dishonesty infuriated Hunter.” Too bad his disdain for dishonesty never dampened Thompson's hippy-ish embrace of leftist policies.
The last 100 pages are the most gripping to a reader who has followed Outlaw's predecessors—Thompson's waning years, his declining health, his late-in-life marriage to Anita—depressing stuff but a nice study on what brings down a legend. McKeen does a strong job of keeping it straight and refuses to delve into some sad sack story of a hero in the throes of the end.
In fact, Outlaw only occasionally suffers from the canonizing hero worship that other titles and media efforts do. While those fawning accounts cast the miserable, selfish Thompson as a man with a good but mischievous heart, McKeen's is a reasonably objective, warts-and-all account of a man who is both foul and unfair much of the time, a self-absorbed asshole who held talent in his hands for a few years, then frittered it away in a dull roar of substance abuse and solipsism.