At the outset of Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo, Peter Richardson lays out his mission: to convince us of three things. First, that the San Francisco Bay Area was integral to Hunter S. Thompson’s formation as a writer. Second, that Thompson’s brash persona has obscured his literary contributions. And third, that Thompson is in fact “the most distinctive American voice in the second half of the twentieth century.”
Richardson anticipates healthy skepticism and comes prepared. His evidence is meticulously assembled, his literary analysis first-rate. He occasionally subordinates style to information, which can lead to narrative inertia, but more to the point—how does his three-part argument hold up?
By the end of Savage Journey, there is no doubt that the Bay Area, and especially San Francisco, played a critical role in the development of gonzo journalism as a style and Thompson as a writer. During the 1960s, dispatches from the region became a rite of passage for such innovative journalists as Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe. Thompson cut his teeth reporting on the Bay Area’s “exotic provincial subcultures—artists in Big Sur, radical activists in Berkeley, and motorcycle gangs in San Francisco and Oakland.” The last of these would inspire Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1967), the book that established Thompson as both writer and risk-taker. Following its publication, he earned “a reputation for bravery that was usually reserved for war correspondents.”
Thompson’s persona, Richardson acknowledges, over time “became increasingly…the focus of his work.” He further suggests that this has now eclipsed Thompson’s literary merit, whatever we think that is. Here, Richardson walks a fine rhetorical line. He declares that “it is not his virtue but rather his virtuosity that draws me back, again and again, to his writing and the forces that shaped it.” Thompson’s personal failings are notable—he was a domestic abuser, a well-documented misogynist, and a frequent user of racial slurs—and as a writer, he was often unprofessional and under the influence of drugs. His process, Richardson writes, was “seldom smooth or efficient—indeed, it was almost always protracted and theatrical—and editors paid the physical and emotional price.”
Richardson doesn’t advocate for separating the art from the artist—an impossibility anyhow in the case of Thompson, who was a central character in many of his stories. Rather, he encourages us to evaluate the work on its own terms, to accept the extratextual baggage without being hindered by it. But if Thompson’s persona has clouded critical reception of his work, Richardson could not convince me that this persona is anything other than insufferable. Thompson fashioned himself after, among others, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. His writing, even when ostensibly about politics or capitalism or the death of the American dream, hinges on his own antics (drug taking and gun toting) and eccentricities (narcissism and mania)—and how compelling the reader finds them.
Finally, there is the question of Richardson’s superlative: Does Thompson emerge from Savage Journey as the most distinctive voice of a generation? Not quite, despite his gifts for invective and satire. But Richardson does make an unassailable case for Thompson as one of the great media critics of his time. “His media criticism did not follow the well-worn path of singling out individual reporters or outlets for bias or other shortcomings,” Richardson observes. “Rather, he believed that traditional journalism in general was failing to meet the moment.” Thompson wrote with astonishing prescience about the pitfalls of journalistic objectivity and its “built-in blind spots” that had helped someone like Richard Nixon “slither into the White House in the first place.”
Savage Journey succeeds because it’s not an ode to Thompson so much as a history of contemporary American journalism. The question of how Thompson fits into this history is the book’s propeller, not its center. By capturing the media landscape of an era, Richardson makes Thompson one character in a larger story populated by equally (if not more) impressive peers, editors, and collaborators.
At the same time, Richardson swayed me on his subject’s “undeniable” talents, about which even Thompson was skeptical. He was baffled, for instance, by praise for his 1970 Kentucky Derby article. “People were calling it a tremendous breakthrough in journalism, a stroke of genius,” he said in an interview. “And I thought, What in the shit?” I was similarly leery of Richardson’s claims about Thompson’s import. I’m glad to have been wrong.•