Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Letter From the Edge

By Blake de Pastino

AUGUST 11, 1997:  You really have to wonder about a guy who would put a book like this together. I mean, most people already know--or at least think they know--Hunter S. Thom-pson. That is, that he's a rum-toting, acid-dropping writer; a flashy mountebank in journalist's clothing or--in general--a jack-bastard of a human being. But what they didn't know until now was that, more than 40 years ago, Thompson fully anticipated having these reputations the world over. Ever since his teens, it turns out, Hunter Thompson has been carbon-copying every single letter, memo, love note, vituperation and plea for clemency that he has ever written. All with the foreknowledge that one day they would be used to document his life and times. I for one can't decide whether that's an act of unmatched arrogance or the most ballsy and ambitious thing a guy could do. But no matter what anyone thinks, it looks like Hunter is having the last laugh. Because now these letters are really seeing print--and for the very reason that Thompson had expected all along.

The Proud Highway is the first of three volumes that will immortalize Hunter Thompson's lifetime of personal correspondence. And judging by its surprises, it gets the project off to a pretty good start. Spanning the years from his boyhood in Kentucky to the dawn of his fame as a feature writer (1955-1967), this book gives us perhaps the most vivid view yet of the man who created Hell's Angels and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Even though all kinds of biographers have had a crack at Thompson's life, it may come as no surprise that--when it comes to getting a whiff of who this guy really is--nothing could compare to this, the story that Hunter has been writing all his life.

And to call it from the top, The Proud Highway really does read like a story. Not so much a novel, though, as a drink-inspired wail. A 700-page-long bourbon-flavored saga about a neurotic young talent who can't discipline his skill or focus his rage. In one letter after another, boy Thompson confesses to some kind of trouble. Evictions, creditors, barroom brawls--and jobs that trigger his unique abi-lity for self-sabotage. While working as a copyboy at Time, Thompson got drunk and called the business manager a "fat lecher." ("My job is somewhat insecure," he observed at that point.) Writing for a small-town rag sometime later, he got canned for kicking in the office candy machine. ("There were those who viewed the situation with some alarm.") Finally he realized that the only person he could work for was himself, and he gradually found success in the freelance market. The key, it turns out, was to use that debauched anger in his writing. And when he did, it made for some hot stories, the ones that made him famous--riding a smugglers' sloop into Colombia, busting moves on whores in Bolivia, fornicating with Hell's Angels on the California coast. At last, Hunter had found his element.

But there was more to young Thompson than attitude, and that may be the most precious lesson of The Proud Highway. Along with all the bravado and bone-crushing poverty, these letters bear witness to the growth of a powerful intellect. You can see his prose taking shape, for instance, beginning with a youthful play of language and then distilling itself into the hallucinogenic voice we now know. Plus, reading Sartre, Styron and Frantz Fanon, Thompson plumbed to some startling intellectual depths, and many of his letters hammer home the themes that he still adheres to. Namely, his vision of an America larded with complacency and sloth. His aversion to taking anyone too seriously. And, above all, his abiding assurance that Hunter S. Thompson has an appointment with destiny.

If Thompson has somehow been pre-ordained for fame, god knows he kept up his end of the bargain. Because The Proud Highway is, in the fullest sense, a piece for posterity. More than anything, though, it fleshes out the man most of us have only known as an image: iconoclast, hellion, counterculture guru. And in the end, it's kind of refreshing to know that Thompson has been capable of sensitivity and pensiveness, as well as fear and loathing. (Villard, cloth, $29.95)

--Blake de Pastino


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