All lonely for Richard Nixon : BOOKS : AMERICA

BETTER THAN SEX by Hunter S Thompson, Doubleday £15.99
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The Independent Culture
Ye F-word gods! First Kesey's comeback novel, then the Stones' Voodoo Lounge tour, and now this. What next, Bubba? Is every professional degenerate we thought was safely buried in that stinking cesspit called the '70s about to rise up like some horrible mass flashback, eager to prove that they're still mad, bad and dangerous to know? Ho, ho.

Indeed. But it's not just hindsight which makes Volume 4 of the "Gonzo Papers" pale in comparison with such masterpieces of the genre as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Great Shark Hunt. For one thing, the subject sucks. However hard Thompson cranks up his syntax to make the Bush-Clinton election campaign look like King Kong and Godzilla out of their skulls on bad acid with the future of civilisation at stake, it won't fly.

He ultimately admits as much. Neither of the final candidates would have been allowed anywhere near the White House in better times. It was dumb on dumb: George Bush looked more and more like some kind of half-eaten placenta left behind at the birth of Ronald Reagan, while Bill Clinton is "a humourless punk with bad habits". In short, this was a contest between a couple of nerds who both turned out to be losers, even the winner. It's hard to quarrel with this judgement, but it makes Thompson's apocalyptic rhetoric about the outcome ("The Horror, the Horror") look shrill, silly and self-serving.

Another major weakness is that our author seems increasingly reluctant to leave his "walled compound" in Colorado. The sense of personal risk in his earlier book was no doubt grotesquely exaggerated, but at least he was out there, in both senses of the phrase. This time he leaves home just twice, and then only briefly, once to meet Clinton with a view to delivering the rock 'n' roll vote in Rolling Stone (Get real, Doc - Clinton worked that angle by appearing on MTV), and then to attend the victory celebrations. The rest of the time he communicates with the external world exclusively by means of the faxes he gets and sends, a selection of which are reproduced here.

This gives the book a superficial air of actuality, but unfortunately it means that there isn't that much actual writing. In fact some of the best material is supplied by Ed Turner, head of CNN News, who comes up with even more entertaining paranoid conspiracy theories than the Great Gonzo himself. This is a shame, because for all his tiresome posturing and self-indulgent laddishness, Hunter Thompson at his best is an original, one of the truest and funniest writers working in English today. There are flashes of that here, but too few. "I am a smart boy," he writes to a friend, "but I am easily led astray and seduced into slick gibberish." Indeed. There are moments when he seems to have confused himself with his alter ego in the Doonesbury cartoon strip; at others he simply tries to impress us with the quality of his consumer durables ("40-inch Interactive HD/black matrix Mitsubishi TV monitors, a Canon 881-X Laser Color World- Scan fax machine").

Let's hope that the reason for this relatively lame performance was the quality of the opposition, which, as Thompson notes, "has declined steadily since the Seventies". His obituary for Nixon mingles vitriolic loathing with a sense of nostalgia. "It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he's gone, I feel lonely." As for Clinton, "He will be just another half-bright, one-term president, like Jimmy Carter - a failure, a geek and probably the last president ever elected by the Democratic party." Politics, like history, will come to an end, the bland dogmatism of "the New Dumb" will triumph and, we are told, there will be no more Gonzo papers.

Maybe. But six months is a long time in politics. Since this book was compiled, right-wing populist Republicans have gained control of Congress, political debate has sunk to new depths, and the '96 presidential campaign promises to be the most vicious and squalid ever. Newt Gingrich already sounds like a character out of one of Thompson's wilder hallucinogenic nightmares, and the going hasn't even got tough yet. Trash your fax machine and get out on the road, Doc. If you're going to go, go out fighting. Your country needs you.