The Proud Highway: saga of a desperate Southern gentleman; Letters 1955-1967 by Hunter S Thompson Bloomsbury, pounds 20; The king of Gonzo journalism had a sane and sober career-plan. Laurie Taylor is outraged
Who would ever have imagined back in the Seventies, as we set off to an hallucinogenic Las Vegas in the company of Raoul Duke and his attorney, that one day we'd be asked to sit up straight and ponder this po-faced monument to the author of that bizarre adventure? But Hunter S Thompson is no longer merely a journalist with an unrivalled ability to file fantastic reports from the wilder frontiers of American individualism: he is a Great American Writer. So, throw away the mescalin, blotter acid and pint of raw ether, and get down to the serious business of ploughing through 700 pages of the good Doctor's correspondence.

It's not as though an over-zealous publisher can be entirely blamed for this exercise in literary over-kill. Even in his teenage years, the man who was to become celebrated for his passionate refusal to abide by even the most basic of journalistic imperatives was so confident of his eventual place in American literature (alongside such heroes as Fitzgerald, Mailer and Styron) that he conscientiously kept a copy of every letter he wrote to old and new friends, past and present lovers, irate and forgiving creditors, and an assortment of bewildered, shell-shocked and surprisingly supportive editors.

If you can overlook some of the repetition, there are plenty of pleasures to be found. Even in his early twenties, Thompson was splendidly corrosive about US hypocrisy and double standards in South America and Vietnam, and always trying to rescue groups such as the Hell's Angels and the hippies from their stereotypes. But what in the end makes much of this volume a disappointment is our constant awareness of the distance between the workaday persona of the letter-writer and the engaging and anarchic character developed in his books.

For no matter how much we were able to kid ourselves that Gonzo journalism had all the spontaneous irrational exuberance of the cultures which it celebrated, here is hard, dull and oddly unwelcome evidence of the almost pedantic care with which its author set about creating a distinctive literary form. Hell's Angels and the two great Fear and Loathing books were thoroughly self-conscious attempts to prove that fiction "is a bridge to the truth that journalism cannot reach", a calculated demonstration that "facts are lies when they are added up".

Neither is the man whose name was invoked by half a million undergraduates as they swilled down their tabs of acid in the least bit anxious for his texts to serve as self-help manuals. In a moving letter to a 14-year old who had written to say that he'd love to be a Hell's Angel, Thompson insists that his brilliant book was "never in hell intended to be a propaganda job for the Angels or any other cult ... be an outlaw ... but do it your own way, for your own reasons".

But it isn't only Thompson's readers who have insisted on conflating author and alter ego. The boredom with "straight writing", to which Thompson confesses in these letters, propelled him into an identity which he was only too ready to maintain long after it had served his purpose. So while there aren't too many signs of the Thompson you thought you knew and loved in these funny, vivid and melancholic letters, there is a real poignancy in meeting a serious young writer who does not yet know that his determination to find a unique place in American literature by a journey to the outer limits of sanity will, with the collusion of his readers, eventually imprison him within a character from which there will be no literary or existential escape.