Letters on Chameleon Skin
A disturbing number of people who have never written assume that the writer’s life is nothing but tribulations. After all, we all know that writers get to sit around and write instead of working real jobs, and that this easy life of sitting down and typing (which any of us could do, if we just wrench the time away from zoning in front of the television watching Seinfeld reruns) allows them to trade paper with big words on it for checks with lots of zeros to the left of the decimal point. Writing is the biggest get-rich-quick scheme this side of starting a dotcom IPO, isn’t it?
Naturally, those who actually write know better. Most have to balance writing for the ages with writing to pay a few bills around the house, and most of the time that they should spend producing is instead spent arguing with egocentric editors, chasing deadbeat publishers for payment for published articles or books, and putting off passersby who go “So yer a writer-person, huh? Waal, Ah’ve got a story for ya: if you write it, Ah’ll split the money with ya.” For those who actually achieve some tiny measure of fame, the time spent away from writing is compounded with college students who ask them to write their theses for them, general moochers who think that they’re somehow owed something for reading the author’s work, and fans who think nothing of stopping by an author’s house and wanting to chew the fat for a few days. It’s no coincidence that many successful writers sequester themselves away from their adoring public: any disruption or diversion takes them away from writing.
In Fear and Loathing In America, the second collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Gonzo Letters,” this conflict is more obvious than expected. The letters from Thompson stretch from 1968 to 1976, the period where Thompson went from being an obscure correspondent for The Nation to the pop hero known and loved today. Judging by his output during this period, which saw the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Thompson’s coverage of both the 1972 Presidential election and the end of the Vietnam War, one would presume that Thompson was both famous and obscenely rich. Instead, his personal letters describe a man constantly haranguing publishers for nonpayment while wrangling with fans and parasites who want nothing more than attention from the subject of their affections. Between bunglings from publishing companies (his first book, Hell’s Angels, was presumably selling very well, but the publisher claimed not to know where his royalties were, and Random House screwed up the hardcover publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas so badly that it only achieved success in its paperback printing through Rolling Stone‘s Straight Arrow Books imprint), shaftings by employers (Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner seemingly went out of his way to shaft Thompson, and any other person working for him, to the extent of cancelling Thompson’s life insurance moments after sending him to Saigon to cover the last few days of the US presence in Vietnam), and basic life aggravations (including his attempts to purchace the Colorado ranch now known as Owl Farm), the amazing part wasn’t that Thompson managed to write his best work. The amazing part is that he didn’t snap and start pounding the objects of his wrath.
Equally importantly, Fear and Loathing In America also helps distinguish the difference between a writer and the work, which has always been a source of aggravation for Thompson. For instance, while Thompson admits that he wasn’t always under the influence of illicit pharmaceuticals during the events chronicled in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (he admits here, probably for the first time, that he only wanted to simulate the feel of a writer on a constant mescaline trip), the general assumption was that because he wrote about being stoned, he always was. Some of the collected letters cover his frustration with that assumption, especially when his reputation as a reputable journalist was constantly jeopardized by near-libel from editors and publishers who refused to make the distinction.
Fear and Loathing In America is currently being pitched as allowing a look inside of Thompson’s mind, but it’s more of a view of the everyday life of a writer. It covers the everyday kindnesses and frustrations of the life, including the obvious and necessary need to pull away from family and friends for just a moment while trying to make a deadline. It covers the pain of watching friends slip away as soon as a writer achieves some modicum of fame (the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was held up for years thanks to the constant temper tantrums of “Doctor Gonzo” inspiration Oscar Acosta, who made so many irrational demands of Thompson in the period before he disappeared that his threats of legal action nearly scuttled the book as well), and the ongoing nightmare of having everyone assume that the drinks are on the writer when the actual income is dependent upon faceless individuals actually bothering to send the checks. This book isn’t for those who figure that they can achieve Thompson’s success by drinking an entire liquor cabinet and injecting queen ant extract into their eyeballs. This is for those who need to know that they aren’t the only writers putting up with the aggravation and the pain. As for those who assume that writing is a get-rich-quick scheme, it probably won’t do a thing to change their minds, but it may make them rethink writing an author and expecting a response. That’s worth $30 in itself.