BOOK REVIEW / Sex, drugs and clean molars: 'Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S Thompson' - E Jean Carroll: Simon & Schuster, 16.99 pounds

Lynn Barber
Saturday 12 June 1993 23:02 BST

HUNTER S THOMPSON belongs to that peculiarly American no-second-act tradition of writers who cut their teeth on sports journalism, achieve literary success very young, and then drown their talent in drink and drugs. He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of an alcoholic mother and an insurance salesman father who died when he was 15. He was good at sports and good with girls, but a childhood friend recalls: 'Lying was the thing he did best. He did it with total cool and total confidence.'

He was expelled from school - 'for rape, I think' - and spent several short spells in jail before going into the air force. He occupied his service years by covering sports events for the air-base newsletter and then worked his way through small- town newspapers before publishing his first great book, Hell's Angels (1966), when he was 29. Then came Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (1973), both initiated by Rolling Stone magazine. The rest is, not quite silence, but a steady slide downhill, culminating in his recent embarrassing piece on the royal family for the Observer magazine.

Nevertheless, his best work deserves to outlive him, and not only in the 'Fear and Loathing' headline which has become such a journalistic cliche. Like Tom Wolfe, he has been seriously damaged by his numerous imitators, so that a style which seemed fresh and mould-breaking at the time now feels stale and over-familiar. He cannot be blamed for this - but it does lead one to reflect that a flashy style is perhaps a rather short- lived virtue in a writer.

Thompson claims to have invented Gonzo journalism, which he defined in the blurb for Fear and Loathing as 'a style of reporting based on William Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism'. As such, it belongs under the general umbrella of 'New Journalism', which means writing in the first person, with the writer as participant, and eschewing all pretence to objectivity.

E Jean Carroll is definitely a Gonzo or 'New' biographer. She presents herself as an unabashed fan, even a groupie, who, using the sincerest form of flattery, writes in the Thompsonian cut-up form, and with his tone of giggling excitement when it comes to sex 'n' drugs. The biographical chapters consist purely of quotes from the good Doctor (he is a Doctor of Journalism), his friends and family - a technique which, though not to be generally encouraged, actually works very well in this case, mainly because the Doctor's ex-wife, Sandra, and his younger brother, Jim, are such honest and perceptive witnesses. These chapters are intercut with a fictional narrative intended to give a sense of the Doctor's 'drug-crazed' lifestyle; the main virtue of this narrative is that it is easy to skip.

However, the absence of any objectivity or authorial 'voice' means one gets a rather one-sided view of the subject. Is the Doctor really as wild and wacky as he thinks he is, or is he a nasty, tyrannical old bore? I strongly suspect the latter: it is significant, I think, that two of his most important early colleagues - Ralph Steadman who accompanied him on his journey to Las Vegas and illustrated Fear and Loathing, and Jann Wenner, who was his editor on Rolling Stone - refused to talk. These are serious, even gaping, omissions.

Most of the people who did talk to Carroll are friends and family; many, too, are fans. Yet the relatively few sour remarks somehow ring truer - for instance, this comment by his former Rolling Stone colleague Grover Lewis: 'Hunter was surrounded by acolytes, suck-asses, sycophants, brown-noses and people who had something to gain from associating with him.' Many of the people talking about Thompson recall only the high times, the parties, the drugs - it is left to his ex-wife to remind us that Fear and Loathing didn't write itself, but took many months of six-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week effort.

However, the remark that absolutely mesmerised me was another one from his ex-wife: 'Hunter was incredibly clean. He really had a thing about cleanliness. He was one of the very first people to start flossing. He did it every single day, in a very sort of religious way.' Funny that there is no mention of flossing in Fear and Loathing. It rather makes one see the virtues of good old-fashioned objectivity.

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