Hunter S. Thompson's SCREWJACK and



(Book review -- first published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Sunday, January 7, 2001.)

Hunter S. Thompson has two new books out. One is a quick and dirty trio of pieces in the finest Gonzo tradition, the other a 756-page volume of correspondence that will eat your life for a week or more if you're not careful.

Screwjack was first published privately in 1991, and has been spawning rumors ever since. Only one of its essays, a 1969 account of Thompson's first mescaline trip written in real time, was previously published elsewhere. As well as being an incredible piece in that you can actually see him writing himself through the freakout and emerging on top, "Mescalito" perfectly crystallizes the life of a freelance writer (some of us, anyway): " … [H]alf drunk full of pills and grass with deadlines past and people howling in New York … the pressure piles up like a hang-fire lightning ball in the brain. Tired and wiggy from no sleep or at least not enough. Living on pills, phone calls unmade, people unseen, pages unwritten, money unmade, pressure piling up all around to make some kind of breakthrough and get moving again."

Screwjack also includes the tale of a psychotic friend who killed himself in front of the author after making a disastrous bet on a football game, and the title story, a demented love scene between Thompson's crazier alter-ego Raoul Duke and a huge black tomcat, reminiscent of some mad cross between Mikhail Bulgakov and Dennis Cooper.

This is strong stuff, but fans of Thompson will whip right through it. The letters are a denser matter, crammed with political and cultural details of the years 1968 through 1976, edited and exhaustively footnoted by the University of New Orleans' Douglas Brinkley. Though I've enjoyed Thompson for eighteen years, I sometimes found myself cursing this book for the headspace it put me in; once I fell asleep after reading it and dreamed I was still reading it. Thompson's ability to yank you into his world and scream his outrage into your face comes through quite clearly in his letters, and nine years/nearly eight hundred pages of this may be too much for most; this is one of those books you might prefer to keep in a handy place, dipping into it now and then. Reading it straight through will do strange things to your mind. Whether you want those things done or not is up to you.

One thing it will sometimes do is deeply depress you. In the late Sixties, Thompson was writing not only to support a wife and a baby son, but to help keep his younger brother in college and out of Vietnam. Whether or not you agree with his politics, it's hard to avoid sympathizing with the desperation in a letter to the brother: "Remember that deer I shot in Glen Ellen? Remember how it looked after the bullet and the knife? Well that happens to nice all-american boys in Vietnam." [sic]

Even if you don't like Thompson's politics, you may find yourself swayed while reading: his despair and outrage are contagious. Whether he is running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, witnessing police brutality at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, or (in the book's most electric sequence of letters, dispatches, and journal entries) traveling to Vietnam himself to cover the fall of Saigon, he never loses his sense of bemused horror -- the famous Fear & Loathing, which is not just a catchphrase but a worldview for Thompson/Duke.

But there's much more to this book than Fear & Loathing. There are hilariously obscene letters to his friends (among whom he counts such diverse characters as Tom Wolfe, William J. Kennedy, Gary Hart, and Pat Buchanan), his editors, and Oscar Acosta, the model for his "300-pound Samoan attorney" in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, who sounds like he was even more difficult to deal with in real life. There are nifty historical moments, like the letter Jimmy Carter sent upon hearing (wrongly) that Thompson planned to enter the 1976 Presidential race: "When I heard you had announced I started to withdraw. However, with the faint hope that you may still be interested in the higher office of sheriff, I'm going to stick around & try to fill the vacuum you may leave."

There is even -- particularly in his letters to his Random House editor Jim Silberman -- a side of Thompson not seen in his work, a sporadic uncertainty of his own vision, talent, and sanity. While Thompson would probably agree that the last is debatable, the first two qualities shine through in this book, making it a must for Thompson fans, political buffs of the era, and anyone interested in the brutal odyssey of an outlaw journalist.