The Mask Behind the Man

Page added: 1997
Last updated: 2002

Update: This article refers to The Proud Highway, the first volume of letters

By Pico Iyer, Time Australia; November 24, 1997

HUNTER THOMPSON launched himself at Parnassus much as he did at everything else, with guns blazing, a bulletproof heart and unflagging dead aim. Yet if the first dirty secret of the 350 or so youth filled letters collected in The Proud Highway (Bloomsbury; 683 pages) is that the Unabomber of contemporary American letters was writing like a paranoid madman even in his teens, the second is that he was doing so because he was a well-read and ambitious man determined to claim his place in literary history. Meticulously keeping carbons of all his 20,000 letters, and taking himself seriously even when slaving for a Puerto Rican bowling magazine, Thompson figured out early that the best way to make a name for himself was by fashioning a persona.

Like all great wits, from Oscar Wilde to Gore Vidal, Thompson saw that a pose was more compelling than a personality, not least because it was more consistent. Thus 30 years before he was the defining "gonzo" subject of four biographies and a Hollywood movie, Thompson was a legend in his own mind, playing himself with mean authority. "I've dropped from 190 pounds to 170," he wrote as a teenager, "become a terrible case of nerves, become addicted to coffee-drinking about 20 cups a day - and had to give up cigarettes when I got up to 4 packs a day." Where some writers give the world their inner selves, Thompson gave even his intimates a well-lighted outer shell.

The deliriously entertaining rants assembled here trace the renegade's progress from editing the sports pages of his Air Force-base magazine, through a stint as a TIME copy boy, to his first best seller, Hell's Angels, in 1967. There are absurdly elaborate screeds to collection agencies and complaints to banks about the color of his cheeks. The proud highwayman wrote to William Faulkner, suggesting that the Nobel laureate send him money; to President Johnson, nominating himself for the governorship of American Samoa; to the Postmaster General, protesting the introduction of zip codes.

Yet Thompson somehow lived up to his brash self-advertisements, in part because he was able to reflect the dark and roiling energies of young America. As early as 1964, he saw Ronald Reagan as "the prototype of the new mythological American... who will probably someday be President:' One year earlier he noticed that Richard Nixon was indestructible, "a vengeful Zero with nine lives." Thompson, in fact, was that loneliest of creatures, an idealist without illusions, ready to kowtow to no one and as conteptuous of beatniks and hippies as of the "rotarians" they rebelled against. Surveying the 1960s like a clenched Kerouac, he lamented the death of John Kennedy, in the terms of his beloved Scott Fitzgerald, as "the death of hope."

By 1967, the human Doberman was beginning to disappear into the legend who made an art form of the "Author's Note." Yet by then editors had realized that his fictions were truer to reality than the most dogged reportage and that his letters explaining, at demented length, why he could not produce an article were more telling than the articles themselves. If the sorrow of later Thompson is that more and more of his pieces read like celebrity walkabouts at 4 a.m., the, pleasure of these letters is that they have all the rude vitality of the man who was not yet a myth.