Hunter S. Thompson is best known for his public image as a drug-crazed madman who flouted authority, despised monotony and had pretty much every adventure you could imagine – and some you couldn’t. Thompson lived his life at full throttle, a mile a minute thrill ride that others were lucky to jump on and off of with their skins and minds relatively intact. The fact that he managed to keep up the pace for as long as he did truly seems to be a miracle; he was a man whose guardian angel must have taken up drinking to deal with job stress. His work was always done at manic warp speed with deadlines looming and real or imaginary beasts threatening to break down the door at any moment.
As with his work, it’s hard to tell where fact and fiction collide in the story of Hunter’s life. It would be difficult to make up any stories wilder than his reality, which inclines the reader to consider any story about him to be true. His most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is a loosely autobiographical account of one of his freelance writing assignments that turned into a crazy voyage. It was also the source of his alter-ego, Raoul Duke, the character who would dog his steps in the form of a Doonesbury cartoon caricature, “Uncle Duke,” portraying him as an exaggerated version of who he was. The book was later adapted to film and made into a movie starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, which has since become a cult classic. As a journalist, Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone magazine and is credited with inventing Gonzo Journalism (a style of writing whereby the author places himself at the centre of the story).
In his book, Outlaw Journalist, William McKeen sets about the daunting task of not only choosing a manageable selection from the many Hunter stories collected from friends, family and innocent bystanders, but putting them in chronological order. McKeen manages to string together one daring exploit after another to create a biography that is at once minutely detailed and that reads like an engrossing, fast-paced work of fiction. His book is meticulously researched and includes selections from interviews and observations from various sources, along with some of Hunter’s own. The result is a book that is detailed and thorough, taking you seamlessly through Hunter’s life, from his young boyhood days in Louisville, Kentucky to his struggles to become a viable freelance writer, his rise to notoriety and subsequent struggle with fame.
McKeen’s portrayal of Dr. Thompson makes a human being out of the idol while leaving the legend intact. He portrays sides of Hunter that many of his fans have probably never seen – the sensitive and anxious creative force who, despite much proof to the contrary, sweated under deadlines and the pressure of his public image. Hunter is shown to be an idealist who suffered from his discovery that the American Dream (whatever that may mean) was, if not dead, missing in action. He found in the political climate of the late 1960s and 1970s a perfect outlet for his intensity. He embarked upon one adventure after another with a bottle of Wild Turkey in one hand and his trademark cigarette (complete with cigarette holder) in the other. By the end of the book you’ll want to quit your job and go on an adventure with a pharmacy in the trunk and the cops hot on your trail, willing to brave the bats and fight the fear in pursuit of your own Dream. For anyone who’s ever been curious about the man behind the legend, this book is an illuminating and inspiring romp. Engaging and accessible, it will grip you from the first page to the last.