Hunter S. Thompson Takes the Proud Highway

More than anything, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman by Hunter S. Thompson is a book for writers: Writers who've clawed after the thin change of freelance markets; writers who've had their subconscious wallpapered with rejection slips; writers who've deep-sixed life's safer passages in order to go "on the road" with a messianic zeal for ripping the covers off reality and laying it bare and quivering on the printed page.Thompson, who invented gonzo journalism along with a quixotic public persona that is forever in the news (and as "Uncle Duke" in Doonesbury), delved into every writer's hellhole imaginable, from Rotarian community newspapers and the military press to scrambling for stories as a freelancer in the jungles of Colombia with $5 in his pocket and few prospects. Thompson has "been there" in a way most writers can only dream of in nightmare terms, and he lays bare his own soul for all to see in The Proud Highway (Random House, $29.95)The book is a collection of 200 letters Thompson wrote from his days as a teen rebel in 1955 Louisville, Kentucky, to the aftermath of his bestselling book Hells Angels in 1967. The letters represent only a smidgeon of Thompson's correspondence. Through the years, the Aspen, Colorado-based writer has written 20,000 letters to friends, political figures, literary lights, and cultural mavens around the world, raging on subjects from Richard Nixon, Vietnam and the hippies to the lackluster quality of American journalism. As an unknown commodity, Thompson wrote audacious advice to literary giants such as Norman Mailer, warning him to beware his backside because "HST is writing the Great Puerto Rican novel."Convinced even in his teens that his letters would someday be valuable, Thompson made carbon copies of all 20,000 of them, even when he was swatting at "six million insects" on a sweat-drenched beer barge on the Magdalena River in Colombia.For Thompson, pounding out letters each night was a catharsis for a life that included drunken rampages, shooting out the windows of his neighbor's house, skipping out on a legion of debts, getting fired from a string of publications for his personal quirks, and being evicted at every turn.A graduate of the Henry Miller School of Shit Happens, Thompson seldom shows remorse in his letters for his errant ways, leading one to wonder if he's a classic sociopath or just a guilt-free alcoholic. Instead, he exorcises his demons each night at the confessional of his typewriter, with letters that are earnest and true -- a lesson in guilt management for us all.Thompson's prescience and output has paid off, because The Proud Highway is the first book in a series on his correspondence. It ends just shy of the days surrounding his comic masterpiece of modern existentialism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), which was a voyage into the illusions and emptiness at the heart of the American dream. Beyond his many insights into writing and a wastrel's life, Thompson offers a clearheaded vision of what the scene was really like during the Beat era of the late 1950s, leading up to the hippie explosion of 1967's Summer of Love.While many Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg wrote expressionistic prose enshrining the era, their work comes off like Jackson Pollack's paint-splatters compared to Thompson's Leica-sharp eye for the times, which captured the bullshit quotient of the beatniks and the hippies along with their liberating influence. Thompson provides the authentic feel of what it was like to scribble in a Greenwich Village garret in the beatnik era of the late '50s, or in San Francisco's "Hashbury" in 1966. He also offers sketches of pivotal cultural icons such as the Hells Angels, Ken Kesey and Henry Miller, tarring these sacred cows with a refreshing honesty that makes them more accessible and human. Here too, we learn the meaning of "gonzo" journalism, which Thompson pioneered in Fear and Loathing. A colliquialism from the Irish neighborhoods of South Boston, "gonzo" refers to the last man standing after an all-night drinking marathon. In Thompson's hands, gonzo journalism became the next step after the "New Journalism" of '60s writers such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer. "It is a style of reporting based on William Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism," Thompson has written. More than any achievement, the development of gonzo journalism -- a melange of stream-of-consciousness, found-object prose, angst, and relentless honesty -- establishes Thompson as one of the most perceptive journalists of his time -- creating as he might say, a truth more potent than journalism.Thompson took his creativity as a frustrated novelist and applied it to his painstaking work as a reporter to paint a "truer" picture of the world than pure journalism could provide. The result was a breakthrough in modern writing that catapulted Thompson onto the world stage via the pages of Rolling Stone, Esquire, The National Observer and his own books, which skewed reality to find the fearsome, loathful truth at the heart of events such as Nixon's re-election in 1972. Lest one think that Thompson is "just" a gonzo kind of guy, however, there are examples of his writing in The Proud Highway which demonstrate that he can swing a straight-prose sledgehammer with the giants. His depiction of the sexual hysteria surrounding Henry Miller's scene at Big Sur in the mid-'60s comes to mind, as does his reminiscence of riding his BSA motorcycle at 100mph in the dark along the winding sea cliffs of Highway 101 south of San Francisco while researching Hells Angels. "...with the throttle screwed on there is only barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right.. and that's when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before the get back to your ears. The only sounds are wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it... howling through a turn to the right, then to the left and down the long hill to Pacifica... letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge... The Edge.... There is no honest way to explain it be cause the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others -- the living -- are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out There. Or maybe it's In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definition."The above sums up Thompson himself -- a man who's never been afraid to stretch to The Edge. Above all, Thompson's book is about struggle: the struggle of a man who believed in himself and his writing through every rebuke, bearing up with outrageous attitude under the storm of firings, rejections, disappointments, lost loves and drunken awakenings. Thompson's own gonzo spirit refused to surrender to a battering that would have crushed many a lesser writer.


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