Reviewed: Gonzo Republic: Hunter S. Thompson’s America

Image of Gonzo Republic Book Cover

Book Cover

In Gonzo Republic: Hunter S. Thompson’s America William Stephenson explores the life and work of legendary Hunter S. Thompson, praising the importance of his unique and stylistic writings, and keenly analyzing ways in which the work relates to greater American Literature and Culture.

Hunter S. Thompson led a fascinating life– full of intrigue and extraordinary moments. Riding with motorcycle gangs, taking acid to toy with his perception, and running for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado are how most of us remember him. Yet Stephenson reminds us that Thompson was very different from the character we most often associate him with: Raoul Duke from the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gonzo Republic readers are treated to the full story of the man behind the legend.

Thompson’s views, life, and work are first detailed in an earnest effort to pinpoint his literary, philosophical, and political roots. From Thoreau to Eliot to Wolfe to Kerouac, Gonzo Republic situates Thompson as having been influenced by some of America’s greatest authors.

Stephenson then conceptualizes Thompson from many other angles. Delving into the meta-narratives of Thompson’s ‘fictions’ and drawing specifically from Baudrillard’s idea of the hyper-real (a world that is being simulated or amplified), he describes the effect of Hunter S. Thompson’s unique writing style as similar to the music of the time. “Like the Jimi Hendrix of journalism, Thompson cranks the volume up so loud that the feedback and the original signal become blurred”. (p.32)

Old Blue Eyes, inked drawing of Thompson

Steadman’s depiction of Thompson, “Old Blue Eyes”

Stephenson seems to admire Thompson’s effectiveness at writing as an act of rebellion. He explains why the moment at which Thompson arrived on the literary scene the nation was poised for a revolt. Citizens were not finding fulfillment in the ‘the American Dream’ and thus Stephenson decries, “The Gonzo style was the cracked mirror of a broken nation” (p.33).

Gonzo Republic likewise explores how Thompson’s push towards both living on the edge and writing on the edge was a tool of protest:

Thompson’s work implies that when the ground of the human subject is the sign, but one seeks to resist this state of affairs through authentic action, then a self-conscious dissident subject is more likely than ever before, at least in modern American culture, where the real, territorial frontier no longer exists, to end up practising edgework, exploring borderlands of chemicals, sub-cultural living, dissident politics, guns and motorized speed (p.92).

Thompson’s edgework is about using psychedelic sport, in all its forms, in order to experience liminal states where one can glimpse an inner boundary, and even briefly travel along it, as the risk of crossing over permanently (p.107)

We also find praise for the writing style found in the myriad of Thompson’s work, in passages like:

[his] best political writing is nonlinear and riven with tension. Through its often fragmentary, abrasive syntax and episodic structure, it reflects a freedom-seeking individualist’s resistance to the power structures that would interpellate him for their own ends” (pp.80)

The drug, sport, and betting metaphors in Thompson’s political writing blurred conventional, conceptual lines in a subversive way, because they revealed that even at the very top, the legally legitimized democratic process had become riven by compulsive desires that were not fundamentally different from the cravings of the junkie or the gambler (p.77).

freak-power

Freak Power Poster

Furthermore, Thompson’s personal brand of politics (“Freak Power”) is detailed as Stephenson puts his ideas into the context of the late 20th century political stage. The reader is exposed to a scope of his commentary not just from the 1960s but all the way until his death in 2005. Stephenson analyses his warnings against trusting the political animals that are part of the political machine, saying that these are quite applicable in our time. Thompson believed that visual propaganda directly affects the important political choices we make as modern Americans. Stephenson even suggests that Thompson’s extreme life and his use of an exaggerated and warped writing style is a comment on the formulation of power structures — within both literature and culture.

The sheer volume of information to be gained from this book is incredible. Pick it up today! It is an excellent study that will please anyone interested in learning more about both Hunter S. Thompson and American Literature and Culture.

Pros
1) This is a detailed pursuit with no shortage of both abstract concepts and maps of detailed roads between Thompson, Literature, and Culture.
2) Readers will find not only literary analysis and biography, but the most quirky and even hilarious tidbits such as how Thompson would read the book of Revelations to get “cranked up about language” (pp.40).
3) Stephenson offers a unique reference section, an index, and has organized his citations of Thompson’s works in a simple way that will please readers.

Cons:
1) As someone who picked up this book because I thought I was a fan of Hunter S. Thompson I quickly realized I knew not the first thing about his work, but only knew of him through the movie Fear and Loathing. Though not absolutely necessary, it would behoove the reader to read a bit of Thompson’s work before-hand.
2) The book will not be an easy read for those who have not done previous cultural studies using the types of classic scholars Stephenson relies on for many of his arguments– DeLuze and Guittari, Derrida, Foucault, and Baudrillard.
3) Unfortunately the book has no pictures, though the cover art is quite nice!

Check out the book here!

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2 comments

  1. danyulengelke

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Alex Gibney Thursday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

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