Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S Thompson, By William McKeen
Sunday 15 November 2009
Biography shows how much a subject was essentially a product of his or her times. Some subjects react against their times, some attempt to step out of them altogether. Hunter S Thompson was mired deep in his. Almost a cliché from the counterculture of the 1960s, he embraced it all: sexist attitudes to women, experiments with drugs, time in prison... oh, and revolutionising an art form.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1937, he was a parent's nightmare, forever in trouble. In the summer of 1955, as part of a small gang, he held up two couples in a car and stole their money. Thompson was the only one jailed, because he threatened one of the women with rape unless they handed the money over. Yet the same woman protested against his sentence in court, won over, apparently, by Thompson's "charismatic personality". Many women would be won over by Thompson, including his long-suffering first wife, Sandra Conklin, whom he married in 1963, and his last wife, Anita Bejmuk, who was the last person to speak to him before he shot himself in 2005. Both endured his infidelities, his rages, his obsession with guns, his alcoholism, his drug addiction and the general chaos that existed around him.
The reason he is remembered, though, is the writing, and William McKeen pays as much attention to that as to Thompson's sexier exploits. Thompson wanted to be the next Hemingway or Faulkner but he failed gloriously in that ambition. In trying to be a great novelist, though, he became a great journalist instead. Along with Tom Wolfe, he is credited with creating the "new journalism", writing that revelled in its subjectivity, giving the journalist's story as much importance as the subject being written about. This art form, too, could only have come out of the counterculture of the 1960s. It suited the egotistical, uncontainable Thompson perfectly.
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