Issue 156, Fall 2000
In his introduction to the second volume of Thompson’s letters (it covers the years 1968 to 1976) the editor, Douglas Brinkley, writes of Thompson as a “true pack rat, hell-bent on meticulously documenting every day of his life ...” Very much as Ernest Hemingway “warmed up ” by writing letters, Thompson has produced an astonishing amount over the years—some letters as long as thirty pages, many of an intensely personal nature regarding his wife, Sandy, and his son, Juan, many on financial matters, often with predictable bickereing with publishers, others on matters political, along with denunciations (Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman), feuds (Sidney Zion, Sally Quinn), and quite a few on experimentation and overindulgence in drugs. In fact, Thompson considered titling the volumes “Confessions of a Mescaline Eater” or “ The Jimson Weed Chronicles," in tribute to Thomas De Quincey or William S. Burroughs.
The selection that follows (including entries from a journal that he kept along with the letter-writing!) is focused particularly on what Brinkley refers to as Thompson's "uncompromising perfectionism ... to get the story and to get things right . . .” including the remarkable letter to his editor at Random House, Jim Silberman, in which he details his struggles with the writing of his masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The freewheeling rhetoric brings to mind what the novelist Tom Robbins once said of Thompson's work: “His prose style reads like he's careening down a mountain highway at 110 miles an hour, steering with his knees.”
A few days after the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago—in which he was harassed by police—Thompson wrote this “ wild flashback ” about the tumultous event. It is the first time he uses the character Raoul Duke as his alter ego.
August 29, 1968
Woody Creek, CO
Sometime after midnight on Wednesday I was standing in Grant Park about ten feet in front of the National Guard’s bayonet picket fence and talking to some Digger-types from Berkeley. There were three of them, wearing those Milwaukee truck-driver hats with mustaches instead of beards, and their demeanor—their vibes, as it were—made it clear that I was talking to some veteran counter-punchers. They were smelling around for a fight, but they weren’t about to start one; they had a whole park to kill time in, but for their own reasons they’d chosen to stand on the front line of the Mob, facing the Guardsman across ten feet of empty sidewalk. Behind the line of bayonets, Michigan avenue was a crowded no-man’s land full of cops, TV cameras and barbed-wire covered jeeps . . . and on the other side of that moat was the Conrad Hilton, its entrance surrounded by a wall of blue police helmets and big sheets of plywood covering the windows of the street-level Haymarket Bar—where, several hours earlier, the plate glass had been shattered by human bodies pushed completely into the bar by the crazed police-charge.
The Berkeley digger-types were convinced that the earlier action was only a preview of a clash that would probably come before dawn. “The bastards are getting ready to finish us off,” said one. I nodded, thinking he was probably right and not even wondering—as I do now—why he included me. I was, after all, a member of the official, total-access press. I had that prized magnetic badge around my neck—the same one that, earlier that day, had earned me a billy-club shot in the stomach when I tried to cross a police line: I’d showed the badge and kept on walking, but one of the cops grabbed my arm. “That’s not a press pass,” he said. I held it under his face. “What the hell do you think it is?” I asked . . . and I was still looking at the snarl on his face when I felt my stomach punched back against my spine; he used his club like a spear, holding it with both hands and hitting me right above the belt. That was the moment, in Chicago, when I decided to vote for Nixon.
The Berkeley trio had noticed the press tag at once, and asked who I worked for. “Nobody.” I said. “I’m just sort of getting the feel of things; I’m writing a book.” They were curious, and after a jangled conversation of bluffs, evasions, challenges and general bullshit, I introduced myself and we shook hands. “Thompson,” said one of them. “Yeah . . .
you’re the guy who wrote that book on the Hell’s Angels, aren’t you?” I nodded. The one closest to me grinned and reached into his jacket, pulling out a messy-looking cigarette.
“Here,” he said, “have a joint.”
He held it out to me, and suddenly, with no warning, I was into one of those definitive instants, a moment of the Great Fork. Here I was in Chicago, in a scene that had all the makings of a total Armageddon, with my adrenaline up so high for so long that I knew I’d collapse when I came down . . . ten feet in front of a row of gleaming bayonets and with plain-clothes cops all around me and cameras popping every few seconds at almost everybody . . . and suddenly this grinning, hairy-faced little bugger from Berkeley offers me a joint. I wonder now, looking back on it, if McGovern would have accepted a joint from McCarthy on the podium at the Ampitheatre . . . because I felt, at that moment, a weird mixture of panic and anticipation. For two days and nights I’d been running around the streets of Chicago, writing longhand notebook wisdom about all the people who were being forced, by the drama of this convention, to take sides in a very basic way . . . (“once again,” I had written on Monday night, “we’re back to that root-question: Which Side are You on?”) And now, with this joint in front of my face, it was my turn . . . and I knew, when I saw the thing, that I was going to smoke it; I was going to smoke a goddamned lumpy little marijuana cigarette in front of the National Guard, the Chicago police and all three television networks— with an Associated Press photographer standing a few feet away. By the time I lit the joint I was already so high on adrenaline that I thought I would probably levitate with the first puff. I was sure, as I looked across that sidewalk at all those soldiers staring back at me, that I was about to get busted, bayoneted and crippled forever. As always, I could see the headlines: “Writer Arrested on Marijuana Charges at Grant Park Protest.”
Yet the atmosphere in the Grant Park that night was so tense, so emotionally-hyped and flatly convinced that we would all be dead or maimed by morning . . . that it never occurred to me not to smoke that joint in a totally public and super-menacing scene where, as the demonstrators had chanted earlier, “The Whole World is Watching.” It seemed, at the time, like a thing that had to be done. I didn’t want to be busted; I didn’t even agree with these people—but if the choice was between them or those across the street, I knew which side I was on, and to refuse that joint would have been—in my own mind—a fatal equivocation. As I lit the thing I realized that I’d lost the protection of the press pass, or at least whatever small immunity it carried in Chicago, if any. That billy-club jolt in the stomach had altered my notions of press-leverage.
With the joint in my hand, glowing in the night as I inhaled, I figured, well, I may as well get as numb as I can.
Then, in a moment of fine inspiration, I took a nice lungfull and handed the joint to the AP photographer standing next to me. His face turned to putty; I might as well have given him a live hand grenade . . , and then . . . then . . . like a man stepping up on the gallows, he put the thing to his lips and inhaled . . .
. , . and I knew I was home free, or at least I wasn't going to be busted. He’d been standing there very cool and observant waiting for something to happen on the front lines while he stayed on the balls of his feet ready to run when the bayonets came; I could almost feel him over there, a heady presence, vaguely amused at this flagrant felony being committed under the eyes of the National Guard and taking sides, himself, by declining to photograph us ... it would have been a fine Chicago Tribute-style photo: “Drug-Crazed Hippies Defy the Flag" . . . and then, it was his turn. When he put the joint to his lips and drew on it very skillfully I knew he had measured the balance of terror and decided that it was safe, under the circumstance, to smoke a joint in public.
I admired the man, and liked him even better than I had the night before when he’d bought me a drink out on Wells street. We had both been caught in a police charge, and instead of running with the mob we had both ducked into a bar, letting the cops sweep on by. Now, 24 hours later, he was sitting on another flash point, smoking a joint—a strange gig for a press photographer. They are a weird breed, estranged in every way from pointy-headed reporters and editorial writers. If reporters are generally liberal in their thinking, photographers are massively conservative. They are the true professionals of journalism: the End, the photo, justifies anything they have to say, do or think in order to get it. Police brutality, to a good press photographer, is nothing more or less than a lucky chance for some action shots. Later, when his prints are drying in the darkroom, he’ll defend the same cops he earlier condemned with his lens.
All this was running through my head as the joint came back to me and my sense of humor returned along with my sense of taste and I realized, after three or four tokes, that I was smoking really retrograde shit. “Jesus,” I said, “this is awful stuff, where did you get it. Lake Michigan?”
The fellow who’d given it to me laughed and said “Hell, that’s THC. What you’re tasting is old Bull Durham. It's chemical grass synthetic stuff. We soaked it in THC and dried it out.”
Bull Durham! Synthetic grass! I was tempted to jam the butt of the thing into the little bastard’s eye ... all those terrible charges and I wasn’t even smoking grass, but some kind of neo-legal bastardised Bull Durham that tasted like swamp corn.
It was just about then I got the first rush. THC, DMZ, OJT—the letters didn't matter, I was stoned. Those bayonets suddenly looked nine feet tall and the trees above the park seemed to press down on us; the lights across the street grew brighter, and bluer, and they seemed to track me as I wandered off to see what was happening in the rest of the park.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I’d blown my keeneyed observer thing for that night, and that I should get the hell out of the park while I could still walk . . . The scene was bad enough with a perfectly straight head; peripheral vision was the key to survival—you had to know what was happening all around you and never get out of range of at least one opening to run through when the attack came.
Which was no place to be with a fuzzy head ... I aimed for the stoplight at Balboa street and lurched across to the Hilton bar. A 500 pound cop with blue fangs stopped me at the hotel entrance and demanded to see my neon magnetic hotel press pass. It was all I could manage to find the thing and show it to him, then I aimed myself across the lobby toward the bar, where it suddenly occurred to me—I had promised to meet Duke at midnight.
Now, as closing time neared, the bar was three-deep with last minute drinkers. The desperate scene outside seemed light-years away; only the plywood windows reminded those of us inside that the American Dream was clubbing itself to death just a few feet away.
Duke was sitting with Susan at a table across from the bar.
They didn’t see me and I stopped for a moment around a corner, standing in a dark spot near a table full of Humphrey delegates with their badges and straw boaters and noisy homefolks chatter . . . waiting for my head to clear; “nobody gets stoned on Bull Durham,” I muttered. “What’s that?” said one of the men at the Humphrey table. “Bull Durham,” 1 replied . . . and he turned away.
Duke was hunched down on the table, with both hands on his drink and talking very easily. She—Susan—the girl with that electric memory, was sitting next to him, watching his hands as he talked . . . smiling that same vague smile I remembered from . . . what? Five years ago? Yes—almost six now—in San Juan.
She looked thinner, not much older but her eyes were bigger and her cheekbones were sharp ... a woman’s face, no more of that wistful virgin thing. I gave my head a quick snap—an acrobat’s trick, they say, to stop the whirling fluids that keep us balanced in those little horseshoes of the inner ear . . . and then I advanced on the table, feeling perfectly balanced.
Duke looked up, and for an instant I thought he didn’t recognize me. Then he smiled: “Goddamn,” he said. “It’s about time. ” I nodded and sat down in the booth, with words piling up in my head and saying nothing, looking across the table at Susan and smiling, or at least trying to. I felt very obvious—as if everybody in the place was watching me, waiting to hear what I’d say. Susan smiled, “Hello,” and I nodded, croaking out an echo, then looking away and calling for a drink. “Some dope fiend from Berkeley just got me stoned," I muttered. “I’ll get my head straight in a minute—just ignore me.”
She laughed, reaching across the table to touch my wrist— and I jumped, just as the waitress arrived and I ordered a beer. “What kind?" she asked, but I waved her off: “Any goddamn kind, just a beer, a large bottle, terrible thirst. . .”
Duke was watching me with a flat, undecided sort of halfstare; I could see it without looking at him, but when I leaned back and faced him he smiled instantly. “You’re a traitor to your class,” he said, “sneaking in here to drink with the overthirty generation.”
“I’m thirty,” I said. “This is my time, my perfect moment . . And I suddenly felt straight; the THC fog was gone, a bottle of beer appeared in front of me and my world came together again. I looked at Susan and smiled. “I saw you at the Fillmore last year,” I said. “But when I tried to get backstage they threw me out.”
“Oh ...” her face was confused. “You should have called me, or told them you were ... or something ...” Her eyes flicked up at me, then away, looking down at her drink . . . confused, like me, by five years of living in different worlds.
The last time I’d talked to her, in San Juan, she was hysterical at the airport, waiting for the plane that would take her back home to Connecticut for a rest, a hideout, a refuge—away from that nightmare scene of the beach house and the Carnival and Duke, and even me ... I felt like touching her, to say hello in a better way than I had—but it seemed like the wrong thing to do. Duke was curling down on the table like a cold wire, sipping his drink without lifting it off the formica. The scene was too weird, too heavy—none of us could handle it, too much had happened, and too far apart.
“Well ...” Duke shrugged and sat up straight in the booth. “What the hell is wrong with us? Can’t we talk like human beings?” He looked at Susan: “Let’s do it like an interview, sweetie. You’re famous now, and we’re just a couple of rude journalists . . . where’s your public manner?”
She looked at him, not quite smiling, then turned to me: “Are you as uptight as he is?”
I shrugged, fishing in my pockets for a match. “Yeah,” I said.
TO JIM SILBERMAN, RANDOM HOUSE: As the deadline loomed for his book on the Death of the American Dream, Thompson tried to buy some time from his editor with a detailed outline of what would develop into his best-known work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
January 13, 1970
Woody Creek, CO
Dear Jim . . .
Your 1/9 letter came as something of a relief. I’d been expecting it for months—like a demand note on a long overdue mortgage.
First off, let me assure you that I’m well aware that we’re into another year . . . another decade. As you so artfully phrased it. Second, I massively agree with your notion that “It would be splendid to be publishing (me) once again ...”
I wish I could explain the delay. It bothers me to the point of stupid, self-destructive rages in my own house—which is not really my house and probably never will be, due to total mismanagement of all my funds and efforts to secure a landfortress. In a nut, my total inability to deal with the small success of the H.A. book [Hell's Angels] has resulted—after three years of a useless, half-amusing rural fuckaround—in just about nothing except three wasted years. I came out here hoping to live in lazy peace with the locals, but finally—and inevitably, I think—that dream of “the Peaceful Valley” went from nervous truce to nasty public warfare. Last fall I found myself running a “freak power” rebellion that came within six votes of taking over the town . . . and the valley, for that matter. So now a lot of those people who called me a friend in those days when I was still trying to live the Peaceful Valley myth now call me a communist dope-fiend motherfucker.
No more of that waving from my porch at friendly cattledriving neighbors; I finished that one night a long time ago when the subject of Vietnam came up in a friendly rancher’s kitchen. I didn’t realize it then—but now, in edgy retrospect—I see how the whole problem began with a harmless mention of Vietnam.
Not that it wouldn’t have begun over something else. Hell, almost anything in these ugly pigeon-holed years. When I lived here in 1963 the cowboys dug me; for a few months in the winter of that year I shot deer for $5 a head for a cowboy who sold the carcasses in town for $10. He would take the orders in town, then drive out to pick me up; he drove and I shot . . . and we had a good thing for a while, but one day he decided to show me how to shoot with my .44 Magnum; six shots later his face was bleeding in six places from the terrible recoil, and that sort of ruined our relationship. Now, in the wake of this new polarization, he is one of many locals who tell each other—in the course of their steady taverntalk—that the valley would be a lot better off if somebody broke both my legs and dragged me back to Haight street behind a pickup truck. This kind of talk came out of the recent local elections, which I think I mentioned to you in a letter about that time. Or maybe I sent you that clipping from the Aspen News. That started the war; the election formalized it—and now we are all stuck with it. At least until next autmn, when our new and probably overconfident power-base is already geared to the idea that I’m going to run for sheriff. Our wild campaign mobilized a local, freak/ young electorate that had never seen itself . . . until we lost the mayor's race by six votes. Now, after coming so close, the buggers are convinced that next time, with a little planning, we can beat the fatbacks like old gongs. I may, in fact, run for sheriff, but only as a smokescreen for some less obvious Freak Power candidate for the County Commissioner’s office.
There are all kinds of weird possibilities. . . particularly since I see this kind of power-struggle as one of the big stories of the 1970’s. All we had to do, in Aspen, was persuade the freaks to register; the actual voting was fore-ordained. And our midnight registration campaign jumped the number of voters from 670 in 1968, to 1600 in 1969. In other words, we dragged the drop-outs back in—at least long enough to vote, and we found enough of them to almost overturn a very sophisticated local establisment. The freaks and young heads they’ve been trying to “run out of town" for the past two years came back to haunt them on election day. We sent teams of bearded poll-watchers to all three wards—all of them armed with tape recorders and xeroxed copies of all pertinent laws. And, despite illegal threats of violence and prison terms from the mayor, the cops and the D.A., we managed to run our people through a gauntlet that scared the hell out of them , . . and after 12 hours of crazed action our tally was 522. The Establishment candidate—a 55 year old lady shopkeeper and former GOP committeewoman for Colo.—had only 517. Then they counted the absentee ballots, and the final tally was 533 to 527, against us. It was a long and brutal night.
Anyway . . . that’s the situation that I’m trying to use, at this point, to start the narrative of what you call the American dream book. I am still hung on the idea of running a narrative through it, rather than letting it go as a series of disjointed commentaries on scenes that may or may not hang together. But I’ve had a lot of trouble with the notion of mixing up a fictional narrative with a series of straight journalistic scenes.
I’m convinced it can work, and I’ve done it before, but the problem now is that I’m so self-conscious about the mixture that I can’t let it work. The fiction part strikes me as bullshit and the journalism seems dated and useless. In the H.A.
book I paraphrased a lot of dialogue without giving it a second thought—but now that I’m doing it consciously I give every line so many second thoughts that paralysis has become my work-pattern. It’s embarrassing to think that I can’t compete, in book form, with cop-outs like Medium Cool and Easy Rider . . . but the compulsion to write something better and more real than those things has left me with what amounts to nothing at all—except a bundle of weird article-carbons. It’s heartening to hear you say that you have a chunk of the manuscript—but as much as I’d like to get that $5000 that comes with sending in a proper third, I can’t honestly say that you have anything more than a heap of useless bullshit.
(Aside—I just got a note from Warren Hinckle saying he’s scheduled my doomed Playboy piece on Jean-Claude Killy—or “flackism in America," as you said it—for the first issue of his new magazine called Scanlan's Monthly. He sounds happy with the notion of running the whole 110 page article, along with some correspondence with Playboy . . . and since he sent me a check for $1500 I guess I’m happy too. God only knows what kind of magazine he has in mind, but if he can drum up anything like the old, high-flying Ramparts, I know I look forward to reading it. As an editor, Hinckle is one of the few crazed originals to emerge from the jangled chaos of what we now have to sift through and define or explain somehow as “the 1960’s.”) And that’s really what I’m trying to write about. As it sits now—in this heap of terrible garbage on my desk—the AD ms. begins in Aspen, on election night in 1969, with a quick recap of Joe Edwards’ mayoral campaign and me sitting on the floor in headquarters, completely burned out after three weeks of sleepless work, wondering what kind of madness had caused me to be there. What kind of bullshit, delusions or common ego-disease had cast me in this weird role—as a mescaline-addled campaign manager for a 29-year old Texas lawyer & dope-smoking bike freak in a Rocky Mountain ski resort? I gave it a lot of thought that night—while we waited for the ward-tallies—and finally I traced it back to that night in September, I960, when I quit my expatriate-hitchhiker’s role long enough to climb down from a freeway in Oregon and watch the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on tv in a tiny village near Salem. That was when I first understood that the world of Ike and Nixon was vulnerable . . . and that Nixon, along with all the rotting bullshit he stood for, might conceivably be beaten. I was 21 then, and it had never occured to me that politics in America had anything to do with human beings. It was Nixon’s game—a world of old hacks and legalized thievery, a never-ending drone of bad speeches and worse instincts. My central ambition, in the fall of I960, was to somehow get enough money to get out of this country for as long as possible—to Europe, Mexico, Australia, it didn’t matter. Just get out, flee, abandon this crippled, half-sunk ship that A. Lincoln had once called "The last, best hope of man.”
In October of I960 that phrase suddenly made sense to me. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t Kennedy. He was unimpressive. His magic was in the challenge & the wild chance that he might even pull it off. With Nixon as the only alternative, Kennedy was beautiful—whatever he was. It didn’t matter.
The most important thing about Kennedy, to me and millions of others, was that his name wasn’t Nixon. Far more than Stevenson, he hinted at the chance for a new world—a whole new scale of priorities, from the top down. Looking at Kennedy on the stump, it was possible to conceive of a day when a man younger than 70 might enter the White House as a welcome visitor, on his own terms.
That was a weird notion in those days. After eight years of Ike, it was hard to imagine anyone except a retired board chairman or a senile ex-general having any influence in Government. They were the government—a gang of rich, mean-spirited old fucks who made democracy work by beating us all stupid with a series of billion-dollar hypes they called Defense Contracts, Special Subsidies, and “emergency tax breaks” for anybody with the grease to hire a Congressman.
Yeah . . . and why worry this thing any longer, particularly in a letter? My point is (or should be) that since I960 I’ve gone through so many personal brain-changes—in so many special places and rare scenes—that I still don’t know exactly what brought me, in the fall of ’69, to that election-nite headquarters in a room above the Elks Club in Aspen, Colo. . . . brooding about the fate of a candidate I barely knew & whose name hardly mattered.
(Time out for an hour to read the galleys of the Killy article; my wife just came back from the P.O.—with a huge envelope about 20"x30". The pages are incredibly heavy, with a protective tissue sheet between each one (or two) . . . Hinckle doesn’t fuck around; but where will I find an envelope big enough to fit this thing when I have to send it back? . . .
Aside from that, the swine have lopped off the whole end of my original ms.—about 25 pages of high-white prose that I thought was the best part. Goddamn the tasteless pigs. This magazine action is about on par with writing copy for FoMoCo pamphlets. Not even your friends can make room . . .) Which is as good a reason as any, I guess, for writing books—they may be the only word-form left where a writer has even a slim hope of getting something published the way he really wrote it. I’ve been writing for a living for 11 years, and never—not once, not even with my poem in Spider magazine—have I ever had anything published straight. The H. A. book was the closet I ever came . . . and that’s sad when you recall all the terrible senseless haggling we went through.
And so much for all that. I see I’ve wasted another night by writing “letters.” It seems to be that with all that fine talent you command, you could come up with some working idea about how to put all this deranged garbage into a saleable package. Five pages a night for three years mounts up to a really massive lump ... we could call it “The Uncensored Ravings of HST—a P.O. Censor’s View of the 1960’s.” Or “Fear and Loathing in the ’60’s—from the files of Hunter S. Thompson." I leave you to ponder it. And meanwhile I’ll look back and see what I’ve said here, if anything. Many words & no focus; that’s my epitaph for the past three years.
And, speaking of history, I trust you noticed the unspeakably savage public re-birth of the Hell’s Angels. Did you read the coverage in Rolling Stone? That scene at the Altamont rock festival shames my worst fantasies; the sharks finally came home to roost. There is no doubt in my mind that Shir-Cliff seized that opportunity to send all remaining PB copies of my book to a warehouse in the Matto Grosso . . . Odd . . . but lines like that don’t seem so funny anymore.
One of the problems with owing people money is that it undermines most of what you say about them—for good or ill. This crippled debtor status leaves me robbed of all that righteous anger that I had so much fun with for so long.
Which drags us back, I guess, to the question of “the book.” And all I can say about it, for sure, is that I want to get it written and done . . . finished, gone, off my neck and somewhere way behind me. I loathe the fucking memory of that day when I told you I’d “go out and write about The Death of the American Dream.” I had no idea what you meant then, and I still don’t. I remember telling you this on those steps outside your office . . . and in several letters since then. 1 don’t remember exactly when my hazy angst turned to desperation, but at this point even a word like “desperation" seems stale.
That’s a nasty word and maybe it’s the wrong one for this—because I guess if I really felt desperate I’d have sent you a bundle of pages by now . . . even bad pages. But I keep telling myself that if I juggle my research a bit longer, it will all fall into place—a magic framework, or formula, to make sense of this swill. I have it all here: two rooms full of notes and memos—but all I can do is juggle it. I spend most of my waking hours in a black rage at almost everything, but every time I sit down to write about it, I end up with 10 pages of finely-phrased bullshit that I never seem to mesh with what I wrote the night before, or the night after. I don’t want to make it sound any worse than it is . . . but I'm beginning to think the situation is really pretty bad. The angst has become malignant; I feel it growing in me, choking the energy, causing me to flail around like some kind of dingbat. There is a weird, helpless kind of rage in not understanding how I can write so many pages and still not get anything written.
Your suggestion about making “bookends” of “reports on those extremes” sounds convenient, but I can’t see how it could work without dropping the whole idea of a narrative, linking the scenes. Maybe we don’t really need that, but without it I see the book as a jumble, a lazy copout that won’t say much of anything except as a limp advertisement for what it could and should have been. I’m coming around to the idea that I’d be better off writing a bomb than nothing at all . . . but I haven’t come so far that I'm ready to write a thing that even I think is bad. The problem harks back to The Rum Diary—which I’ve always wanted to publish, beginning to wonder now if I might not have killed the book entirely by brooding and haggling over it for so long. About three times a year I have a dream about what might have happened if Pantheon had managed to publish The Rum Diary before you got a hold of Hell’s Angels. That lost option haunts me in some kind of left-handed way. If nothing else, it might have saved me from getting locked into this nightmare assignment of explaining the Death of the American Dream.
Christ, I shudder every time I see that term in print. I should have taken ShiT-Cliff’s advice and done a book on surfers. Hell—anything at all would have been better than this millstone: Cops, Winos, Scumfeeders . . . anything with a focus, a subject, some reason for writing about it, a handle . . . or even just a fucking excuse. As it is, I feel like some kind of pompous old asshole writing his memoirs. I feel about 90 years old. Why in the name of stinking jesus should I be stuck with this kind of book? Maybe later, when my legs go.
Fuck the American Dream. It was always a lie & whoever still believes it deserves whatever they get—and they will. Bet on it. There is a terrible wave building up, and by my calculations the deal will go down in the winter of '74-75. When Baldwin wrote The Tire Next Time he was talking about 10% of the population—but this time we’re looking at 50%. If Nixon makes it to '76 he’ll have to be carried out of the White House on a strait-jacketed stretcher . . . and Agnew will be dragged out by his heels.
Yes ... I seem to be getting a bit wiggy, so maybe I'd better close off. I wish I could end with some kind of happy reassurance about The Book. Maybe—with a touch of inordinate luck—I can find a narrative opening sometime soon and break out of this terrible bind.
Thompson ravings . . . cont.
Jesus, looking back at that heap of mad swill (pages 1-6), I have to wonder if perhaps I haven’t gone mad. Read it and let me know how it sounds on that end.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d try to outline the situation as briefly and cogently as possible. Keep in mind that the following is done off the tip of my head—sort of howling at the moon. But it might be easier to do it this way, than to keep on rambling in straight letter form. So ... to wit: the problem: My book is long overdue. The material exists, the research is done (with one possible exception)—but no book exists.
Why? (The reasons listed below are not necessarily in order of relative importance . . . but maybe)
1) The title, main concept, is so broad and pretentious that I no longer feel able to cope with it. Actually I never did. What I said that night in the Four Seasons was that “Anything I write is going to be about the death of the American Dream"—in the same sense that the H.A. book was “about” the death of the AD. But that’s not the same as going out and writing a book with that as the working title. I wouldn’t read a book with a title like that & I see no reason why anybody should read one from me. It sounds like something from Publish or Perish league. I’ve been saying this in letters—to you, Lynn, Bernie, etc.—for more than a year, but nobody has ever answered them. (See specifically my letter to you dated 8/30/69.) But, once again, let me hark back to Faulkner's concept of “seeing the world in a grain of sand.”
The job of a writer, it seems to me, is to focus very finely on a thing, a place, a person, act, phenomenon . . . and then, when the focus is right, to understand, and then render the subject of that focus in such a way that it suddenly appears in context—the reader’s context, regardless of who the reader happens to be, or where. Thus, you focus on some scurvy freak in Oakland who calls himself a “Hell’s Angel” & write about him in such a way that any dingbat stockbroker in Cleveland can see himself somehow in the image of that scurvy freak. Some people have to be forced to relate; others only need an exucse . . . (shit, that last line sounds like it came from somebody who might write a book called “The Death of the American Dream.” Strike it . . .) The point is that a good book is about people, not theories . . . and my problem is that I don’t have any real people in these situations I’m writing about, nothing to hook a reader and drag him into the scenes. (Except possibly myself, in the sense of my own involvement—but let’s save that possibility for later.)
2)—and this may really be #1—but it’s hard for me to say or even to know, for certain, just how worried I really am about producing a “bomb”—a bad “second book”—and by “bad” I mean rotten reviews (or none), wretched sales and a general all-round bummer. I’d be kidding myself if I said this wasn’t a serious factor—although probably I’d be far less concerned about it if I were convinced that I had (have) a really good book in the works. This never bothered me in terms of the HA book, because when I began the thing it never occurred to me that I was getting into a “serious book. ”
I saw it as a quick & easy way to get $6000—by rapping off a hairy commercial shocker on a subject that didn’t particularly interest me, but which seemed very saleable. It was only after several months of research that I began to take the book seriously—and then, as I recall, I went into a deep funk and couldn’t write a word for many months. And I never would have got the bastard written at all if I hadn’t been deathly afraid of seeing the contract cancelled the day after the deadline. Now, looking back on what eventually came of it, I find myself brooding over the fact that only a bare handful of all those favorable reviews seemed to recognize the book I thought I’d written. So there is no rational reason for my concern with reviews. I know what kind of people write book reviews—I used to do it myself—but . . . well, fuck that . . .
The nut of the problem is that even though I dismiss nearly everything written about the HA book as silly, unctuous bullshit, I know that it all made a difference—in the sales figures, if nowhere else. And the sales figures, I know, determined what kind of advance I got for the AD book ... so I have to consider the notion that a Bomb this time around might make the third book even more of a problem. I wouldn’t mind a Bomb if I thought I could get out from under it without screwing myself for the next five years . . . but it scares the hell out of me to think that this unholy pressure to produce a second book might destroy whatever small leverage I have. At the moment I see four possibilities: a) I could write a good book (one that I like) that won’t sell; b) or a bad book that sells . . . And I could live with either one of these, but the real nightmare is c), that I might write a bad book that won’t sell. I intend to do everything possible to avoid that. The fourth option d), is the odd wild chance that I might write a good book that sells. This is what I’d like to do, and the only thing I’m dead sure of right now is that—to make it both ways—I’m going to figure out some way to avoid coming down to this typewriter every night with the stinking idea that I’m going to tell the world about the Death of the American Dream. If I can’t shake that, we may as well call the whole thing off. It’s a terrible bummer & it won’t work. I knew it—and said it—all along, but everybody seemed to think I was kidding. But now, after two years of being hung up on that nightmare, I have to assume that it’s obvious on all fronts that I've screwed myself to the floor and I’m losing my fucking mind. It’s jangled me to the point where I can’t even write articles, because every time I try one I tell myself “This will of course be part of The Book”—so I end up writing 100 page screeds that nobody will print, and the horrible fact is that I never even knew what book they were supposed to be a part of. The whole thing is a disastrous myth & I have to get out from under it before I get so twisted that I have to go back to daily sports writing. Shit, anything would be better than this awful scene.
So . . . let’s try to finish this; I’ve been working on it for nearly 10 days and that should tell you more about why you don’t have a book ms. than anything I say here. The two main problems (see 1) and 2), above . . .) are so much a part of each other that they seem like a knot. To wit: It seems crucially important that my second book be either good or successful—not necessarily both, but at least one of those— and, after two years of false starts and generally wasted effort, I still can’t see any way to write a book worth reading unless I can rid myself of the notion that I’m stuck with the task of explaining, “the Death of the American Dream.” I just can’t get serious about writing a bad, dull book that I honestly feel is going to be a bummer in every way.
Which brings me to the final category: POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
1) We could settle, very quickly, on a new working title— although I think it’s a little late for this as a real solution. It might have worked a year ago, when I first suggested it, but at this stage of my desperation the mental grooves are too deep—and too obviously dead-ended—to be cured or altered by anything as superficial as a few changed words.
2) Nonetheless, the title has to go . . . and that raises the question of a new focus. Why am I writing this book? What is it about? People ask me and I can't say. So if you want to help, as you say, there is the question and the problem all at once. I don’t have a title in my own mind. Yours is unacceptable and I long ago rejected it as an explanation of what I’m supposed to be doing.
Here are some possibilities:
A) I’m writing a series of long articles that may or may not illustrate a theme. Most of these incidents take place in 19681969 & center on domestic political situations—which a lot of other people have written about. I can do them with (or, from) a special POV, but is this enough? Thus, your notion of “bookends" begs the question. It could give the book an appearance of a beginning and an end—but what’s really in the middle? Even so, this is a viable option; I don’t like it & I’m not sure anybody else will, but rather than suffer any longer with the notion of writing a “final wisdom book,” I may be better off just whacking out a Thompson version of The Pump House Gang.
B) I could focus almost entirely on the fictional narrative aspect of the book & downgrade the journalism to the level of background—using scenes like Chicago and Nixon’s Inauguration as a framework for the trials and tribulations of my protagonist, Raoul Duke. This is the approach I like best, but it’s also the one that’s least realized at this point. I haven't been able, so far, to make Duke a human being; he hasn’t come to life—not even for me. So the narrative still looks like a phoney gimmick to string a bunch of ankles together.
Another problem with this approach is that the American Dream millstone keeps intruding & it strikes a false note. It addles the dialogue and forces me to keep backing off and pontificating. (Which recalls for some reason that Fitzgerald wanted to call his book about Gatsby “The Death of the Red White and Blue.” FYI)
C) This one is tricky; it’s the idea of emphasizing my own involvement with these various scenes to the extent that I become the protagonist—somewhat in the style of Frederick Exley’s A Fan's Notes. The problem here is one of perspective and control: My ego comes through very heavy, even when I try to write the straightest kind of journalism . . . and I’m not sure what might happen if I deliberately set out to write what amounts to a (limited) autobiography. The Killy/Playboy piece is a good example of this tack as opposed to the far straighter and less personal approach that I tried to use in the Esquire gun piece. Somewhere between these two, in terms of style and tone, is the Nixon Inaugural article for the Boston Globe—although that one is almost pure impressionistic journalism, larded here and there with a few old cudgels and HST bias points. And—in a far different vein—we have that Los Angeles mescaline trip, which is almost intolerably impressionistic. I like all these chunks for different reasons, but I’m not at all sure they can work as a whole book. Maybe if we put them together the whole will somehow be more than the sum of its pans. But the nightmare is that the parts may seem so wretchedly disjointed as to contradict each other and make no sense at all.
The problem with this (C) possibility is that all these seemingly contradictory stances make fine sense to me—(for good or ill)—but I realize that people like you and Lynn and Don Erikson and the editors of Playboy can’t make any sense of them at all. And that’s not a judgement—just a flat recognition that we live in different worlds . . . which harks back, I see, to my original notion that my real job is to write a sort of literary common denominator. Which brings us right back around to the main question: the framework . . . ????? Assuming the basic material is already half-formed & that most of the research is done, the missing link is more a packaging concept than anything else. That sounds simple, but it’s not—at least not to me. Maybe I shouldn’t even be thinking about it; and I probably wouldn’t be if this were my first book . . . but in this situation I tend to over-write, over-research, over-worry, and, obviously, to under-produce.
I suspect the writing would go pretty fast if I could see from “A” to some point around “P” or “Q” . . . but as it is, I can’t see far beyond “C" or maybe “D.” God knows, it’s too much to ask to be able to see all the way from “A” to “Z”, but . . .
Well, let me try, once again, to capsule the options:
1) There’s the Pump House Gang approach; the main advantage here is that it looks like the easiest and fastest way to “produce” a book and get on to something better. More than half of this one is already written in more or less final draft. The rest wouldn’t be much of a problem—and the final result wouldn’t be much of a success, either. It would be more of an advertisement (and that recalls Advertisements for Myself) than a coherent piece of work.
2) There’s the Raoul Duke approach, which is essentially a very contemporary novel with straight, factual journalism as a background. I don’t know any precedents to cite for this one . . . which is probably why I like it best. If it works it could be a very heavy, major book. But if it fails—like it has so fax—the results could be anything from a published bomb and a personal disaster, to—even worse—many more months of crazed and fearful haggling between me and RH, trying to prevent a bomb/disaster by working the ms. to death.
And that would drive us both crazy. One of the problems here is that you have no ms. sample of this approach. Maybe I should do a final draft of some chunk & let you see it before we settle on anything definite.
3) The other option is a sort of Fan's Note approach—using straight newsreel scenes instead of private traumas for a narrative. This approach would fall somewhere between Pump House and Advertisements for Myself. And in a sense it might possibly be done by simply dropping the fictional protagonist and basing the narrative simply on my own involvement—although not to the extent of a Mailer-style bit. That’s too much even for me. (But more personal involvement than Pump House, for instance, in that the story would be first person instead of third.) Here we have a problem with the fictional aspect, a la Exley, in that my backgrounds involve well-known or at least sensitive people. The Raoul Duke gimmick in #2 (above) gives me far more leeway to improvise on reality, without distorting it, than I'd have without Duke. He can play the lead role in scenes I couldn’t even use otherwise, because in the context of non-fiction I couldn’t “prove” them. Duke is only semi-fictional, but just hazy enough so I can let him say and do things that wouldn’t work in first person. Like smoking a joint on Nixon’s press bus; I can’t say who actually did this because he’s now a ranking editor on a major metro daily. It tells a lot about Nixon and the press corps that when I warned him (the press head) about the odor, he said, “Shit, this crowd is so square they don’t even smell it—I’ve been doing it for weeks.” And he was right. One alternative, of course, is for me to say that /covered Nixon with a joint in my mouth—but since I didn’t, I’d rather not bias my observations that heavily; and besides, the irony of the story is that they expected me to be smoking grass, but it would never have occurred to them to suspect this other lad.
Anyway, that’s a good example of my problem. Duke gives me a lot of options on the journalism front, but he also presents a hell of a problem with the narrative. Once I bring him in, I have to keep him there, even when I don’t need him. And I have to make him real. The original idea was to use Duke, like Gatsby, to illustrate that Death of the American Dream theme—but that’s a horror when you start with the theme and work back to the character. It may work the other way, but I can’t be sure until I see the character . . . and so far his symbolic value keeps queering his reality. On the other hand, his value as a sort of “cover” & safety valve solves many of the problems I have with the straight journalistic approach. I can insist that everything he says and does is true, but I can also refuse to identify him for obvious legal reasons.
So the root problem appears to be how to handle the fact / fiction balance. Maybe there should be no fiction at all . . . but I can’t get very enthusiastic about coming out with a handful of articles about stale scenes. And—re-thinking #3 (above) I don’t see how I can get away with much fiction & still use the situations I’ve researched. A first-person account, with the author as protagonist, would have to be pretty straight ... so the only real difference between #1 and #3 is one of emphasis. Any continuity in #1 would lie in the style & POV—a series of articles with only the claim of a theme to tie them together. And #3, without any fictional aids, would only differ in that the individual sections (ankles) would be lashed together in a grid of super-charged rhetoric that would make the book more essay than journalism. The difference between Pump House and Advertisements for Myself.
And that’s about it for now. Before I tack on a final graf or so, I want to go back and read over what I’ve said . . . but even if none of it makes sense I hope there’s no doubt in your mind that I’m almost desperate to untangle this book and get it done. I don’t want you thinking I’m sitting out here with a head full of dope, grinning at the sunsets or spending my time on skis. I skied once last winter, and not at all so far this year. The problem is not lack of time at the typewriter—but this goddamn wild juggling of unworkable solutions to what might be a simple problem if I could back off far enough to get it in focus. That’s where you can help—by considering the options from your end and hopefully coming up with something more specific than How Nice It Would Be if I could tell the world about the Death of the American Dream. I genuinely want to get this book written, and it’s beginning to look like I’m stuck on a problem I don't understand. If you can see it more clearly than I can, for Christ’s sake, say so.
After reading over the first 17 pages of this monster, I don’t see much point in trying to edit or revise it. You asked what the problem is—and I think this letter is a pretty good answer. Not that I haven’t said it all before—see my letter of Aug 30, 1969—but this time, since you asked, we may be a little closer to coming to grips with it. I hope you can come up with an idea or two for untangling the bastard. If this book can be made to work it could be a real boomer . . . and maybe that’s the problem; maybe I should get rid of this notion about writing on stone tablets and start thinking in terms of perishable print.
But even if that is the problem, I’m so locked into the stone tablets that I don’t know how to back off without plunging myself into despair. Hell, you’re an editor and you’re paid to solve this kind of nightmare puzzle. I’ll expect a finely-reasoned answer very soon. Meanwhile, I’ll try to finish off a Duke/fiction section—even a very short one—so you can put that in your comparison shopping bag.
Thanks . . .
TO JANN WENNER, ROLLING STONE—
The 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami (July 10-13) had gone wrong in many ways, and things got worse for George McGovern from there. His choice of Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton as his running mate turned disastrous within two weeks, when imminent press reports forced the vice-presidential candidate to announce that he had indeed spent time in mental hospitals on three occasions, twice receiving electroshock therapy. McGovern made matters worse by announcing that he stood behind Eagleton “a thousand percent, ” even while scrambling to dump him. He dropped Eagleton in favor of Kennedy-by-marriage Sargent Shriver, the former head of JFK’s Peace Corps and LBJ's Office of Economic Opportunity, who was so inoffensive that Republican president Richard Nixon had let him stay on as U.S. Ambassador to France until 1970.
This may explain why McGovern blew his gig with Kennedy. It was a perfectly rational notion—a man on the scent of the White House is rarely rational. He is more like a beast in heat: a bull elk in the rut, crashing blindly through the timber in a fever for something to fuck. Anything! A cow, a calf, a mare—any flesh and blood beast with a hole in it.
The bull elk is a very crafty animal for about fifty weeks of the year; his senses are so sharp that only an artful stalker can get within a thousand yards of him . . . but when the rut comes on, in the autumn, any geek with the sense to blow an elk-whistle can lure a bull elk right up to his car in ten minutes if he can drive within hearing range.
The dumb bastards lose all control of themselves when the rut comes on. Their eyes glaze over, their ears pack up with hot wax, and their loins get heavy with blood. Anything that sounds like a cow elk in heat will fuse the central nervous systems of every bull on the mountain. They will race through the timber like huge cannonballs, trampling small trees and scraping off bloody chunks of their own hair on the unyielding bark of the big ones. They behave like sharks in a feeding frenzy, attacking each other with all the demented violence of human drug dealers gone mad on their own wares.
A career politician finally smelling the White House is not much different from a bull elk in a rut. He will stop at nothing, trashing anything that gets in his way; and anything he can’t handle personally he will hire out—or, failing that, make a deal. It is a difficult syndrome for most people to understand, because few of us ever come close to the kind of Ultimate Power and Achievement that the White House represents to the career politician.
The presidency is as far as he can go. There is no more.
The currency of politics is power, and once you’ve been the Most Powerful Man in the World for four years, everything else is downhill—except four more years on the same trip.
TO CARRIE NEFTZGER: An amused Thompson replied to a discontented reader with characteristic disdain.
September 27, 1974
Woody Creek, CO
David Obey at the main Rolling Stone office in San Francisco has forwarded your letter of Sept 18 to me—the one where you cancelled your subscription to RS because of my “vulgarity.” . . . and I also want to tell you right now that I never answer mail from readers; but I couldn’t resist talking back to a 91-year-old lady full of zip—and despite the prevailing ignorance of your letter, that zip came thru in every line. If I ever get to be 91, I hope I’ll be as mean as you are.
In any case. I’m enclosing the most recent RS, with my compliments—and despite your nasty language about me, I’m sure you’ll read it. You’ve lived long enough to know that words are just tools, for a writer, and when I write about Richard Nixon I’ll use all the tools I can get my hands on, to make people like you think about why Richard Nixon was elected by a landslide in 1972. My primary idea, whenever I sit down to write, is to get the attention of people like you, and make you think—and your letter of cancellation to Obey tells me I was successful in your case.
If you read the enclosed piece (“The Scum Also Rises") with any kind of wit, you’ll see that what you react to as “vulgarity” is only a prod to make you listen . . . and if you disagree, well . . . I’ve done what I can, eh? You can run, Carrie, but you can’t hide ... not even after 91 years; and if you voted for that cheap, thieving little bastard, then you deserve what you got.
If not, I guess you’re on my side—but I doubt if we’ll ever meet. Anyway, I admire your balls in canceling your subscription to Rolling Stone . . . But I get a lot of letters from people with balls, and not many from people with brains.
Why don’t you read the enclosed article and write me one from your head next time?
Hunter S. Thompson
MEMO ON SAJGON: Thompson kept a journal throughout his stay in Southeast Asia. This unfinished entry describes his experiences during an evacuation of Saigon the day before the South Vietnamese government officially surrendered to North Vietnam's forces.
Balls. If I wanted to go to Subic Bay, I’d join the goddamn navy. That dime-sucking fool has already seen my copy & my description of the hopeless madness of the Embassy’s evacuation plan—21 Hueys, holding 7-8 people each are now available to lift us off the rooftops & out to the 3 main pickup points where the Jolly Green Giants can land—and, as Alan Carter at USSS pointed out yesterday in his office—with Jerry Ford’s picture off the wall & ready to be flown out—“all they have to do is shoot down one chopper” & that will end that phase of the plan—leaving anybody still in downtown Saigon to get out on his own.
So I am off to Laos on Saturday—while I still have enough cash to function—& then back to Hong Kong & Bali—where Sandy will supposedly meet me.
Even lame strangers & non-journalists who can help out with red tape, etc. are getting $50 a day in green out here, plus expenses—and as far as I know I’m not getting anything at all.
Sitting in Brinks Up Town Club for breakfast again—for the past two hours I have been the only person in the dining room but now a few journalists are beginning to drift in—but the building is virtually empty.
Outside the air-conditioned restaurant, the outdoor theatre where they used to show American movies at night is deserted & stripped of equipment—there is no more toilet paper in the bathrooms—either Ladies or Gents—but the wooden rollers are still locked in place with solid brass locks & nobody knows or cares where the keys are.
On the street below, two-dozen tiny Vietnamese construction-workers are still working steadily on a 6-story apartment that is half-finsihed—heavy steel-reinforced concrete, faced with orange tile bricks. Only a direct hit will have much effect on that building, & the new Chinese (Hong Kong) owner was apparently willing to gamble on that, because he’s still paying his crew—although in brutally inflated piastres. (The official rate remains 750p = $1.00 US, but the Bank of India is giving 2800—$1.00 today, up 500p since I changed $200 for the Rolex on Tuesday, while ordering my tailor-made tv costumes at 20Kp each. I am the only person in the press who still has his clothes & equipment lying un-packed around his hotel room—& still ordering clothes from the tailor. All the others have sent everything out, except what they can carry in one “running bag.”
My second arrival at the Continental was a strange sight— bringing in so much luggage that I needed three bearers to get it into the hotel—and one leather red Chinese suitcase that was so heavy I had to carry it in myself—a morale-building move, I thought—but it was widely interpreted as the act of a doom-seeking lunatic—especially the idea of bringing in a new 240v electric type-writer that wouldn’t work at all in the hotel’s llOv sockets—until Mr. Dang, Time's fixer, managed to wire it into the air conditioner with a crude 6-inch “extension cord” made of stripped lamp-wire & scotch-tape.
Dang now has every credential I own—my passport, my press card, my RS air travel card . . . How many out-going tickets will he charge on it? And what will I say if he tells me it got lost?
Nothing—or at least no more than I’d say if the whitepajama hall-boys began looting my room, with bayonets in their teeth. Right. Just help yourselves, boys; don’t mind me. Can I help you with that packing?
Yesterday morning I saw an ARVN soldier wandering around the halls of the Continental for the first time. Not armed—or at least not with an M-16—although he might have had a knife or a pistol and who would I have turned him in to . . . after a fight . . . And he would definitely be back—with some friends, to wreak vengeanc