A Week in Books: Thompson's furious comedy puts apathy to flight

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The Independent Culture

Forget the drugs. Forget the liquor. Forget the guns. Forget, even, the sporadic craziness that, on Sunday, led him to follow Papa Hemingway onto the trophy-board of American literary marksmen who ended up by bagging themselves. Weeks before an epoch-making British general election that may well see the lowest turnout since the arrival of universal suffrage, we should celebrate Hunter S Thompson as a great political artist-journalist, a ragged hero of democracy.

Remember as well that "fear and loathing" at first referred not to some wild acid or Bourbon binge, although there were plenty of those. The phrase comes from the young reporter's instant response - in a letter - to JFK's assassination in 1963. Thompson felt earlier, and deeper, than most that the murder in Dallas would raise the curtain on the defining story of the late 20th century: the ascent of an overweening imperial America, and the toll that young empire would take on agents, and victims, at home and abroad. While Gore Vidal tracked this new imperium in self-protective patrician prose, Thompson suffered it linguistically - in the delirious gumbo of his "gonzo" style - and, maybe, physically too.

For me, his most enduring work deals not with the grungy counter-culture of bikers, rockers and junkies but the besuited dominant culture of politicians, and the power-brokers who make and break them. Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail, the book that Thompson built from his reports for Rolling Stone on the 1972 presidential election, counts among the finest postwar works of literature about the Western political process. Correctly, it frames Richard Nixon's defeat of the liberal peacenik George McGovern as a baroque tragedy, with farcical interludes. The McGovern debacle, chronicled from the inside by HST with a mixture of anguish, rage and empathy, marks the moment when the American Empire took the iron grip on its state and society that (Watergate notwithstanding) it has never loosened since.

Too many of the threnodies over recent days have polished up the picture of Thompson as a semi-demented fantasist, a visionary who repainted the real world in the lurid hues of his chemically-assisted imagination. Yet what's extraordinary about this book, his masterpiece, is the depth and precision of its engagement with every nut and bolt of a wearying campaign. This is genuine political journalism cranked up to an almost nerdish pitch, not a druggie rant and reverie. HarperPerennial, I'm delighted to report, will publish a new edition of Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail in early April.

The message of this modern classic - as of his later political essays - has more to do with tuning in and turning on than dropping out. Thompson's furious comedy puts apathy to flight. Because he cares, desperately, about the corruption of the Republic, so will his readers. And how much we need his counterparts in Britain now, as voters sleepwalk towards the polls. On television and in the press, a posse of wannabe Hunters might - given maximum exposure and even a modicum of talent - raise the turnout this May by 5 to 10 per cent. Go on, media moguls: give it a try.

On any Olympus of the righteously deranged, Thompson ought at least to be on nodding terms with the Irish satirist and moralist who could compose, not merely A Modest Proposal and Gulliver's Travels, but a pamphlet entitled The Benefits of Farting Explained. In 1933, WB Yeats re-cast the Latin epitaph that Jonathan Swift chose for himself. It will do for Thompson too. Yeats's version runs: "Swift has sailed into his rest;/ Savage indignation there/ Cannot lacerate his breast./ Imitate him if you dare,/ World-besotted traveller; he/ Served human liberty." This weekend, raise a glass, or a phial, to that.