[26 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
One of the many striking things about reading any of Hunter S. Thompson’s work, and one of the reasons it is so enduring, is the fact that his writing is so immediately accessible. Readers can instantly connect to whatever Thompson is describing whether or not they shared his incredible knowledge of the US political system, his lifelong passion for sports, or his voracious appetite for and fabled history with drugs. Readers understand Thompson, and he rings true to them, because he understood how to communicate with them. His writing is so brilliant partly because it is so relatable, because it is conversational.
So imagine having an actual conversation with the man. Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson, edited by Thompson’s widow and former assistant, Anita, compiles nearly 50 of his most compelling conversations spanning almost 40 years. Recently, Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson, another book collecting Thompson’s essential interviews was published, and with Ancient Gonzo Wisdom coming so close after that, you might think that there’s a glut of the good doctor out there. Fortunately, there are only a couple of overlapping interviews between the two, and because Anita Thompson has done such an extensive excavation of the Thompson archives—including transcribing rare broadcast interviews in addition to his most important interviews from the publication of Hell’s Angels right up through the months before his death in 2004—this is the vital volume.
Equal attention is given in Ancient Gonzo Wisdom to pieces featuring Thompson talking about the state of the world and the disarray of the nation, and to articles glorifying and/or verifying the more recreational experiences of Thompson’s legend. Trying to pick out the best, or most interesting, interviews here is, of course, impossible. Thompson’s mind is so sharp, his responses so detailed, his considerable charm consistently outpaces his crankiness, even in the later years that it’s hard even to choose a favorite. Highlights are apparent, however. The November 1996 conversation with P.J. O’Rourke for Rolling Stone, in which the two discuss journalistic writing as a direct way for the writer to connect with readers, explore an updated Buddhism and the realism of Nabokov, and talk about how Thompson’s writing is like music—which may further explain its conversational accessibility—is lively, informative and more than a little inspirational.
The series of interviews with Playboy Assistant Editor, Tim Mohr, published as Post Cards from the Proud Highway three months after Thompson’s death, is very much like the man himself was, engaging, exhaustive, entertaining and remarkably illuminating, rarely riffing on the same themes and never repeating himself, even though he’s speaking on several familiar subjects. After half a century of his own writing, numerous biographies, countless pages of correspondence, a few movies and all of these other fascinating interviews, it’s both thrilling and a bit disheartening to realize that Hunter S. Thompson was still capable of surprising us.
Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson is as close as we as readers can get to having Thompson as a conversational companion. It’s challenging and clever, frustrating and funny, and it’s a great companion to his canon.