BOOK REVIEW / Dr Gonzo and a peacock expert: 'Hunter' - E Jean Carroll: Simon & Schuster, 16.99

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Remember being 19 and laughing your sides out over Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas? Remember wishing you too could have a Samoan attorney and a bottle of ether and a bag of blotters and a cold beer in one hand and the wheel of a fire-red convertible in the other, racing to the unhinged heart of the American dream in the heat-blasted reaches of Nevada?

Now we grow up and wonder if that stuff was really funny, or if Hunter S Thompson, the Doctor of Gonzo, was really just a drug-addled jerk. Now we grow up and get journalist E Jean Carroll's Hunter, purporting to be the man's foul and degenerate life as chronicled by peacock expert Laetitia Snap; a biography compiled by fax while Miss Snap is held hostage by its gun-toting, coke-tooting subject in a cesspool on his Colorado fortress, after unspeakable episodes of sexual torture at his debauched and felonious hands.

It is, Carroll tells us, 'a sleazy, bottom-feeding project' from which she disassociates herself emphatically - and it's marvellous, and it's funny, and it's horribly sad. It looks at the outset like she's gone Gonzo Groupie, and we'll get nothing here but a reverent gush of idolatrous pastiche - but then all the voices are cunningly assembled, and a complex, high-octane portrait begins sharply to emerge.

So did the man write some of the greatest journalism of his time, screams of outrage from a disintegrating America? Or was he a liquor-sodden idiot? The answer is Yes to both, with forgiveness thrown in from the most surprising quarters. His wife Sandra Dawn seems to have been more a slave and a handmaiden than a wife; she loses a catalogue of babies while her husband becomes progressively more dangerous and crazed, until finally she leaves him under the escort of a terrified sheriff's deputy saying: 'First time it was love. Last time it was fear.' And yet at the end she looks back, and speaks fondly of his charming smile. Another time she says: 'Hunter beat me. OK. Not good. OK. Next chapter.'

Senator George McGovern wonders poignantly how anyone could cope with him for a weekend, let alone for a life; he asks mildly: 'Do you suppose he's a good lover?' Margot Kidder says: 'He was so munglingly ineffectual as a human that I adored him' - but he had drug-ingesting sessions with her husband Tom McGuane that terrified her, 'the strangest kind of cock-length contest I'd ever seen'.

So we see Thompson by turns as an impossible monster, and the soul of kindness; a Southern gentleman who unlearns his racism, but never grows out of his guns. In the tradition of those writers he most admires, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, he's a terrible foul-up, but with a talent whose brief bright burning cast an illumination worth a million trashed hotel rooms; a talent that broke all the rules magnificently, before subsiding into sputters of gibberish.

What he'll make of all this now, God knows; biographers, he snarls, are 'degenerate little paparazzi', 'a pack of maggots'. We never learn with any precision how close to the man Carroll's got - close enough, no question - though she does pertly note at one point that she didn't sleep with him. But evidence elsewhere suggests he couldn't have performed if she'd wanted him to; Miss Snap may comment from time to time, awestruck, on 'the Doctor's tooly

wagger', 'the Titanic Rutabaga' - but when she goes to gamahuche the doodlebanger, it shrinks to a little wax bean. This experience is shared, on the record, by 'a famous blond movie star'; Carroll withholds the star's identity 'for her own good'.

Telling tales like these, the Gonzo pastiche becomes steadily more tart, while the real voices become steadily more sorrowful. After Vegas and the McGovern campaign, it's downhill all the way - cocaine and celebrity between them doing the man in altogether. Right from his childhood with his alcoholic mother in Louisville, Kentucky, it was evident that he was an appealing misfit, a violent lone soul in an American torment, 'quite the handsome lout'; then he got famous, he became a character in a comic strip (Duke in Doonesbury, since late '74) and as Nicholas von Hoffmann says, just 'being Hunter was a career and a half'.

The career began with beatnik roamings from New York to Puerto Rico to Rio, writing unpublished novels with a picture of Hemingway over the desk. Then Hell's Angels came out in 1966, a book that closed with the famous postscript in which the Angels beat Thompson to a pulp, and the man was made. Carroll, however, has tracked down some of those Angels, including their leader Sonny Barger in jail in Phoenix - and their version of the event has Thompson beaten by only one of their number, curled in a sorry ball on the ground, and last seen running down the road 'screaming like some chick that was being raped, man'. Barger says Thompson promised them a keg of beer for their co- operation, and he never did come up with it.

So when Thompson cries out to Miss Snap/Carroll that what they'll do together is write 'the one true biography] We'll make up all my secrets]', it's plain Carroll knows that the legend needs some sharp dissection. But what's so rewarding is that even after passing under the gaze of those who remember him less fondly than his friends, the legend still survives - and it's valuable to be reminded of the furious contempt hurled by Thompson at the rottenness of his times.

One war correspondent defines Thompson's worth in the simplest way. He tells how in Korea he knew there was an ammunition shortage, but when the general said otherwise, under the rules he had to report what the general said. Whereas if Thompson had been there, he'd have filed this: 'Seoul, Korea. General Maxwell Taylor said today that there is no ammunition shortage in Korea. And the man is a motherfucking liar]'

Much imitated, never matched, Hunter Thompson was, with William Burroughs, the voice out on the edge of his times - and now the times are worse, we could use a voice that savage and hoarse. But we're not 19 and laughing our desperate sides out any more, are we? As one friend sadly notes: 'When Hunter dies, then we're all old.' There are, of course, those who say he's died already - and the immortal remains are this shambling, mumbling, roaring husk, burnt out by the excesses of his own success. He says: 'I'm by myself. The last dope fiend. It's hard to find the right people to party with.' But if the party's long been over, at least Carroll's taken us on one vertiginous good ride along the way.