Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (2 page)

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
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Epilogue: “Midnight on the Coast Highway”

The Proud Highway Honor Roll

Chronological List of Letters

THE CURSE OF THE BRONZE PLAQUE
A Foreword to the Letters of Hunter Thompson
BY WILLIAM J. KENNEDY

An institution that should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.

—Joseph Pulitzer, May 10, 1883, in an editorial upon becoming publisher of the
New York World
(reproduced on a bronze plaque on the Times Tower, New York City)

It was late summer, 1959. Hunter Thompson had kicked in the candy machine at the Middletown (New York)
Daily Record,
had been fired for being “too offbeat,” and was looking for work. He answered an ad in
Editor & Publisher
for a sports editor's job at the brand-new daily
San Juan Star
. He was twenty-two but represented himself as twenty-four. He said the job interested him because it was in Puerto Rico, outside the “great rotarian democracy” of the mainland.

He mentioned his Middletown troubles and also said he was lecturing on the meaning of the Beat Generation. “I have given up on American journalism,” he wrote “The decline of the American press has long been obvious, and my time is too valuable to waste in an effort to supply the ‘man in the street' with his daily quota of clichés … There is another concept of journalism.… It's engraved on a bronze plaque on the southeast corner of Times Iower in New York City.” He added that he now had to get back to his novel, part of which was with the Viking Press in New York.

As managing editor of the fledgling
Star,
I wrote him explaining that our editor
1
was a member of Rotary, that we had a staff of offbeat reporters (and editors) who, like him, were writing fiction, and suggested he return to his novel, or perhaps start another, building his plot around the bronze plaque on the Times Tower. “You should always write about something
you know intimately,” I wrote, and added that if we ever got a candy machine and needed someone to kick it in we'd be in touch.

He received my letter at his home in Louisville in the same mail that brought Viking's rejection of his novel, and he sat down and wrote me, “your letter was cute, my friend, and your interpretation of my letter was beautifully typical of the cretin-intellect responsible for the dry-rot of the american press but don't think that lack of an invitation from you will keep me from getting down that way, and when I do remind me to first kick your teeth in and then jam a bronze plaque far into your small intestine.”

I wrote back, saying that since he was the bushy-tailed expert on journalism's dry rot, we would pay him space rates to summarize its failings in three double-spaced pages that we would run in our first edition, along with our exchange of correspondence. I said I didn't know another publication that would give him the time of day, and signed it “Intestinally yours.”

His reply: “Daddio! You mean the bronze plaque paragraph bugged you?… I don't mind saying, friend Kennedy, that I enjoyed your letter. This is a weird bit of correspondence we have here, my man” But he said I was a tragic optimist if I thought it was possible to handle the dry rot in three pages and he assumed my offer was designed to develop “a ceremonial mangling … of a jabbering beatnik.” Even so, he said he would give it a fling, which he did.

“Dear Hack,” he wrote, enclosing with his letter a one-act play: “a brutal, low-level, sledge-hammer drama … a farce, of course, but its theme is a big one.” He also said my last letter had surprised him, “and perhaps in the long run I shall owe you an apology for all this abuse.”

I rejected his play as “warmed-over clichés with barnyard overtones,” and wished him well with his book, noting he'd be better off away from journalism if he was serious about the novel, and suggesting he stop by for a drink if he was in the neighborhood.

He responded with a page of revenge. “Don't expect
me
to send you a package of platitudes to drape over the stinking carcass of your newspaper like an American flag over a coffin full of crap.” He added: “I imagine you're pretty decent, in your own way, and I think it's a shame that you've hired yourself out as a mouthpiece for the international rotary.”

Less than two months later he had applied to
Sportivo,
a new bowling magazine in San Juan. “I may have a chance of duping [the editor] into thinking I'm normal,” he wrote his friend Bob Bone, a reporter on the
Star,
and he got the job. But pretending to be normal was folly
Sportivo
's editor proved to be, in Hunter's words, “a liar, cheat, passer of bad checks, welshing shyster, and otherwise foul,' and the job merely led to new insolvency.

But here was Hunter in San Juan, and before long he came to the
Star
's city room Fred Harmon, our business editor, greeted him, “We don't have
a candy machine, but there's a cigarette machine in the corner.” A few of us went out for that promised drink, talked of bronze plaques and novels, and Hunter settled in for several months of life in Puerto Rico.

He was kicked out of two houses, but eventually found one on a deserted beach, brought down his wife-to-be, Sandy (“I can barely support myself, much less a common-law wife,” he wrote her, “so I presume you'll bring at least a little money for food”), wrote some fiction, did free-lance journalism, and we had a number of all night conversations about writing, and how and why you do it.

By June, Hunter was abysmally broke, had been beaten by police and jailed for breach of the peace and resisting arrest, was reduced to drinking rainwater and being eaten by sand fleas, and, sensing also that he might have to spend a year in a Puerto Rican jail, he fled the Caribbean in a sailboat.

He wrote me from Bermuda. “Dear Editor. My name is HS Thompson and I would like to work for the
San Juan Star.
… I understand Puerto Rico is a wonderful place to live.… My information comes from three fellows I met in an asylum in upstate New York.… They were good fellows and I could understand most of what they said.”

This was an unlikely beginning to a friendship and correspondence of, so far, thirty-seven years' duration. But odd things occur when you intersect with Hunter Thompson. Life happens to him in ways alien to most mortals. In the exchange of letters cited above (fully rendered in the pages that follow) there lurks prophecy—of Hunter's future as a masterful American prose stylist and journalistic fictionist, and also of the lifestyle that has served him so well creating chaos to undercut his own most cherished schemes, courting self-destruction as the avenue to success, maintaining a symbiotic colloquy with comic despair, and coping with bronze plaquery and other rejection through Avenger's Rhetoric, e.g., from 1965 to a dilatory editor: “I'm coming to New York on a chopped hog and shoot you in the gut with an expanding filth flare”, from 1967 on his plans for chastising a literary agent: “cracking his teeth with a knotty stick and rupturing every other bone and organ I can make contact with in the short time I expect will be allotted to me.”

The tools Hunter would use in the years ahead—bizarre wit, mockery without end, redundant excess, supreme self-confidence, the narrative of the wounded meritorious ego, and the idiopathic anger of the righteous outlaw—were all there in his precocious imagination in San Juan. Throughout those days he was using these tools to become a novelist. His work-in-progress, when we first started talking about fiction, was “Prince Jellyfish,” and he was soon to start “The Rum Diary,” which would occupy his attention for years to come. Neither novel has been published, though excerpts from both appear in his
Songs of the Doomed.

“Prince Jellyfish bounced again, for the third and final time,” he wrote me from New York in August 1960. “… It's not really a very good book.… I'll just chalk that year up to experience and start on that ‘Great Puerto Rican Novel' that I mentioned.… I've compromised myself so often that I can't honestly see myself as a martyr anymore … I think I'm probably better off as an opportunist with a large and ill-formed talent.”

He knew some of my writing had been rejected, and that bothered him more than his own rejection “You're no martyr,” he observed accurately, “but I think you approach your writing more honestly than I do mine I'm too greedy to wish you much luck, but if you can break through without stepping on my head, I hope you make it.”

That sounded unusually honest to me, but his talk of martyrdom and compromise were romantic ideas that had little value except as a writer convincing himself of his own seriousness. We recounted the examples of Faulkner's neglect, Nathanael West's bad luck, Fitzgerald's sad fading away with his work out of print. But all Hunter had done in the way of compromise was to drink too much and write some low-level journalism to stay alive. The inadequacy of his fiction was his real problem, and it was mine as well. The years ahead would prove this to both of us.

This collection of Hunter's letters is a prime source for tracking that time in his life how he shaped himself into the peculiar fiction writer he became.

1960: “If I weren't so sure of my destiny, I might even say I was depressed. But I'm not, and there's always tomorrow's mail.” “My fiction still refuses to sell.… Have begun the Great Puerto Rican Novel (The Rum Diary) & expect it will do the trick.”

1961: His book was going badly, he wrote me, and an agent refused to take it on. “And so we beat on, boats against the current,” he wrote, quoting
Gatsby,
the oriflamme of his ongoing martyrdom to the American Dream.

1963: I react negatively to “The Rum Diary,” tell him to abandon it. “I have decided to rewrite it,” he writes.

1964: Making money in journalism doesn't give him joy. “With luck, I will be driven back to fiction.”

1965: Broke and jobless, he's “wrestling with a novel … fiction doesn't depress me like journalism. It's harder, but much more human work.”

1965: His article on motorcycle gangs for
The Nation
draws six book offers from publishers. “I am hysterical at the prospect of money. The big apple at the moment seems to be
The Rum Diary
. If I had the novel in shape right now I could knock off a $1500 advance tomorrow. But, sadly, it is not good enough to send out.”

1965: “I should have quit journalism … and hit the fiction for all I was worth. And if I'm eve to be worth anything I honestly think it will have to
be in the realm of fiction [which is] the only way I can live with my imagination, point of view, instincts, and all those other intangibles that make people nervous in my journalism.”

A case might be made for the previous paragraph being the turning point in Hunter's awareness, or admission, that what he was vigorously trying to do wasn't journalism. These letters take him only through 1967, and it wasn't until 1970, when he published “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” in
Scanlan's Monthly,
that his gonzo journalism came fully into existence. Was it journalism? Well, it had appeared in a journal But wasn't it really
fiction?
It wasn't Hemingway running the bulls in his favorite town, but it
was
Hunter running the horses in his favorite idiom. It was a short story, the best fiction he'd ever written.

In all our early marathon conversations, a recurring subject was writers of originality how the power of language set them apart, how their story, not their ideas, was supreme, and for an idea to find houseroom it needed embodiment in the narrative or it was worthless. The notion of coming at the reader with fangs dripping wisdom was as laughable as it was useless.

Such talk is part of the basic training for any fiction writer. The real problem comes in learning how to use these insights. Hunter identified with literary outsiders. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Donlea's Ginger Man. He learned from Mencken how to be an attack dog, but he cheered for Algren and Fitzgerald and West, and he memorized Dylan Thomas and Faulkner. I remember him saying in the late 1960s that the main thing he wanted to do with his writing now was to create “new forms” of fiction.

The Derby story had pointed the way toward that great mother lode.
Playboy
was next, then
The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Esquire,
etc. Hunter had discovered that confounding sums of money could be had by writing what seemed to be journalism, while actually you were developing your fictional oeuvre.

By 1971 “The Rum Diary” was in the basement and Hunter was writing one of the funniest, most original books of the last three decades,
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,
his paean to drug madness that consolidated his growing fame, turned him into the mad doper as comic icon, gonzo journalist with the public clout of a rock star.

His 1972 presidential campaign book,
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72
, published serially in
Rolling Stone,
changed his image: now fang-dripping, malevolent wit as political sage. But that book was more than journalism it owed as much to the imagination as to political savvy. It fell, at least in part, into the same category as the Derby piece and the Las Vegas book fiction.

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
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