Monday, July 9, 2012

GONZO: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson Reviewed

Here, then, before we get to the meat of the review, are the basic facts of the matter before us.  Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson, written by Will Bingley and  illustrated by Anthony Hope-Smith with an introduction by Thompson's former editor Alan Rinzler, was originally published a couple of years ago by a British outfit called SelfMadeHero, and has just been re-released in a new edition by Abrams here in the States.  The 192 page paperback will set you back $17.95 if you still want to buy a copy after reading what I've got to say about it.
My opinion, I must say, seems to be in the minority.  I Googled the title and found several reviews written around the time of the original edition's release, and most of them are, if not glowing, at least positive.   I myself found little of value between those bright orange covers other than Rinzler's introduction, which I shall deal with in more detail presently.  First though, I must dash off my dismissal of the main body of the book.  
Bingley and Smith attempt with this book, as they state in this interview, to get beyond the public persona of "Dr. Gonzo" that Thompson built up around himself and that is perpetuated in such films as Where The Buffalo Roam and Terry Gilliam's version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to, in Bingley's words, "tell a more interesting story."  There is a more interesting story to be told, but you won't read it here.  Bingley's narrative is written in the first person as if by Thompson himself in a semi-convincing pastiche of Thompson's style at its most lucid that may fool some with only a passing familiarity with his work into thinking that they are reading some sort of lost manuscript by Thompson himself.  However, Thompson's seemingly dashed off prose style was deceptively easy to imitate on the surface, but full of depth of meaning and insight combined with an inventive use of  language that his imitators, myself at times among them, rarely even attempt to duplicate beyond repeated and inappropriate use of the word "shitrain" and references to "bad craziness".  Ultimately, Bingley barely manages to scratch the surface, failing to capture the true complexity of Thompson's life and work.
The book focuses mainly on the 1970's, which I suppose is only right as this was his most productive period.  However, the final decades of his life are also important to an understanding of the man and his ultimate fate and deserve better than to be dismissed in a couple of scratchily drawn and sparsely captioned pages.  The book ends, of  course, with Thompson's death at his own hands.  Bingley seems to be among those who want to paint Thompson's end as some sort of noble or brave and heroic act, when, in fact, suicide is neither of those things.  I will have to admit that as much as I continue to admire Thompson's literary accomplishments, I lost some small measure of respect for the man because of his final act.
Of course, Bingley's failure to capture the essence of Thompson's soul is no surprise if he can't even get straight the basic biographical facts of the man's life. On page 17, "Thompson" states, "My first job was as a sportswriter in New Jersey in   1957," which is not accurate, or even true. While it is certainly a fact that Thompson began his civilian career as a journalist in the small town of Jersey Shore, that town is, as I learned in college when I met a young woman who had grown up there (and I wish I could remember her name), neither in New Jersey nor anywhere near a shore.  Instead, it is located near the center of my home state of Pennsylvania.  Apparently, Bingley wrote his caption based on an assumption made by simply looking at the town's name rather than doing any actual tedious and time consuming research.
I came away from this book with no greater understanding of its subject than I'd had before.  The only real insight into Thompson's personality is offered in the introduction by Alan Rinzler, who was Thompson's editor on what he calls "...four of his best books": Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail '72, Amerika, The Great Shark Hunt, and The Curse of Lono. The intro seems a bit odd to me, as it reads as if it were not specifically written for this particular book.  At the very least, Rinzler appears not to have even read the volume he's supposed to writing an introduction to.  Not once does he make any reference to the book we are about to read or its authors, focusing instead on his personal recollections of working with Thompson.  Sadly, though, those scant eight pages of prose give us more insight into who Thompson truly was than the entire 180 page sequential narrative that follows.
The one good thing I got out of this book was a renewed desire to re-read some of the classic pieces by Thompson referenced within.  Thus, I set out to pick up a new copy of The Great Shark Hunt, which, as far as I'm concerned, is, along with Campaign Trail, Hell's Angels and Songs of the Doomed, all the biography of Thompson that anyone really needs. For in Thompson's case, more than for any of the other so-called "new journalists" with whom he is often lumped in, his life and work where truly of a piece and inseparable.
If Gonzo inspires anyone else to go out and re-read, or, better yet, discover for the first time, Thompson's literary legacy, then I suppose that its existence will have been justified.  Personally, I would advise anyone curious about Thompson to skip this book and use the eighteen bucks you save to purchase the books I make reference to above.  That would be a much wiser investment of your cash and reading time.

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