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The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson

by William McKeen

Pub Date: July 18th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-393-06192-5
Publisher: Norton

McKeen (Journalism/Univ. of Florida; Highway 61: A Father-and-Son Journey Through the Middle of America, 2003) resurrects the Good Doctor with a solid treatment of his life and work.

Since Thompson’s suicide more than three years ago, there have been countless memorials and appraisals of his career, including longtime artistic collaborator Ralph Steadman’s meandering The Joke’s Over (2006). McKeen stays on task, maintaining a well-paced narrative as he works his way through Thompson’s life, the details of which are by now quite well-known: athletics-filled but troublemaking childhood in Louisville (“I look back on my youth with great fondness,” the author once wrote, “but I would not recommend it as a working model for others”); brief stint in the Air Force; frequent rejections of his first two novels, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary (which was eventually published in 1998); long, up-and-down relationship with the editors at Playboy and Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone; redemptive success with Hell’s Angels (1966) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972); increasingly erratic behavior, embodied by his alter-ego, Raoul Duke, and spurred on by his relationship with Mexican-American activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta; seclusion on his ranch in Woody Creek, Colo.; calculated suicide in 2005. Thompson’s unrivaled substance abuse and explosive personality were the stuff of legend, but McKeen, employing readable, lively prose, does a fine job excavating other aspects of his character, digging deeper than most of his previous biographers to reveal a vital component of Thompson’s genius: “Part of Hunter’s art was collecting the right people, putting them all together, and seeing what happened.” Carefully avoiding hagiography, however, the author gamely explores the darker side of Thompson’s nature as well. Throughout, Thompson’s slavish devotion to his search for the American Dream provides the narrative’s binding thread: “The Dream obsessed him…but what was it? Was it Horatio Alger, rags to riches, the idea that you could start with nothing and end up rolling naked in stacks of hundreds? Or was it a dream of freedom? Personal freedom…or the concept of freedom that the founders brought into the world?”

A welcome addition to the Gonzo library and one of the best starting points for HST novices—at least until Douglas Brinkley decides to publish his eagerly awaited version of events.