In 1972, two years after his ‘Freak Power’ campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County was derailed by a rare moment of non-partisan hand-holding by the Democrats and the GOP, Hunter S Thompson penned what is probably his best work, Fear & Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. The work was originally serialised in Rolling Stone, a magazine whose relationship with Thompson had been launched by his aforementioned run at the sheriff’s office. The primary mobilising impetus for the epic undertaking that was a year on the campaign trail with Senator George McGovern was Thompson’s burning rancour for Richard Nixon, whom he considered to be evil in a fashion so fundamental as to be best understood in religious terms. Twenty years later, a slightly lesser malignance toward George Bush Senior and his Predecessor Ronald Reagan spurred Thompson into action again. This mini-Nixon, however, was not hateful enough to actually get the good Doctor out of his home and onto the trail; he covered the campaign via mojo-wire from his Woody Creek HQ based upon observation of cable TV and the feverish delirium that was the inside of his own head.
Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie Trapped Like a Rat in Mr Bill’s Neighbourhood is a fragmented collage of press-clippings and deranged personal correspondence penned by the gonzo journalist and sequenced by a pack of rabid starfish. (Each starfish had an item pinned to it; the pages appear in the order in which the starfish died). Thompson is perhaps most famous as the father of gonzo journalism, where the writer becomes so involved in the subject matter as to become the central figure in the story, and this book is a shining example of that process. Better Than Sex probably ends up this way because Bill Clinton was such a wet blanket. Hunter thoroughly disliked Clinton, as he had no sense of humour and was an overly political animal. The only reason Thompson got on board and lent his support to the Clinton campaign was that he couldn’t stomach another four years of Bush. Thompson had to become the central figure in this work or it would have been eye-achingly boring.
Now, I am a huge fan of the Doctor’s work, largely as a result of his inimitable style. I would probably read his shopping lists were they made available to me. He is one of a small number of writers whose word-sequencing wizardry makes any topic enjoyable. That said, his coverage of the ’72 campaign was also full of information and wove a fascinating story. When I finished it I felt genuinely edified to have read it. Better Than Sex, not so much. It’s fun, but it’s also the first of Thompson’s works that I’ve found easy to put down, even in the middle of a chapter. It gets so lost in the Hunter S Thompson-ness of itself that it forgets to take you on a journey and point out the sights along the way. This is quite possibly due to the fact that unlike the ’72 effort it was never a cohesive series of articles, just a selection of loosely themed ravings. I’d definitely recommend it to a Thompson fan if running low on other material, but if you’re not as addicted to his work as I am, stick to the classics.
The verdict: It’s still Hunter S Thompson, but it lacks the meat of some of his other work. 3 ludicrously obscene faxes to Ed Turner out of 5.