“Sickening Acts of Total Insanity” : Hunter Thompson, Duke and Garry Trudeau (The Gonzo Chronicles, Part X)

Since reanimating this project, I’ve focused on Duke’s time abroad, first as a colonial administrator in American Samoa and then as American ambassador to China, examining his symbolic role in Doonesbury. Beyond his original appearance as a caricature of Hunter S. Thompson, Duke personifies the selfishness, cynicism, and greed that increasingly defined American culture as, after the crises of Vietnam and Watergate, the ideals of the 1960s counterculture gave way to a harsh “I’ve-got-mine” zeitgeist that found full political expression with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan and thrived as American political culture, under both Republican and Democratic stewardship, moved inexorably toward our present cold, hard, Right. 

I began writing about Duke with a post framed by Timothy Denevi’s political biography of Thompson, Freak Kingdom, which focuses on the years between JFK’s assassination through Nixon’s resignation, when Thompson produced his most politically-salient work. Here, I’m going to wrap up Duke’s time in China and talk about his misadventures upon his return Stateside while looking at William McKeen’s 2008 literary biography of Thompson, Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. Both books explore how Thompson’s writing lost relevance and vitality in the mid-70s; while Denevi focuses more extensively on the political dynamics at play in that shift, McKeen uncovers how the price of fame, and specifically a popular emphasis on the more outrageous aspects of Thompson’s public persona (at the expense of his literary/political insights) forced him into a “bunker mentality” that prevented him from doing his best work. McKeen’s take on specifics of those dynamics is of particular interest to Doonesbury readers. 

McKeen situates Thompson’s Gonzo journalism in the larger context of the New Journalism, a movement dating from the early 1960s that included critical voices like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, and George Plimpton. Like those writers, Thompson’s approach was informed by the upheavals of the times, as old ways of expression failed to capture profound challenges to the Establishment. As Crawford Woods wrote in his review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gonzo journalism emerged from…

…the particular sense of the nineteen-sixties that a new voice was demanded – by the way people’s public and private lives were coming together in a sensual panic stew, with murder its meat and potatoes, grass and acid its spice. How to tell the story of a time when all fiction was science fiction, all facts lies?

Thompson understood that the relationship between “facts” and “the truth” was tenuous and saw “fiction [as] a bridge to truth that journalism can’t reach.” As part of this commitment to using literary methods as a way to uncover a deeper truth, the New Journalism stressed the intentional centering of the subjective experience of the author. For Thompson’s brand of Gonzo journalism, this meant that writing about “getting the story,” what McKeen calls “metajournalism, journalism about the process of journalism,” was as critical as the story itself, maybe more so. Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 Presidential campaign, which appeared in Rolling Stone and was collected in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 was a key moment in the evolution of the Gonzo approach:

His articles were about the agony of reporting and writing a story every two weeks, and much of the folklore and language that would surround the character (or caricature) called Hunter Thompson came from this period, as Hunter constantly portrayed himself as a man tormented by deadlines lashing together a story, feeding twisted gibberish into the Mojo Wire under brutal deadlines, when he was at the mercy of savage and obscene editors…

Not long after that election came Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. McKeen calls the post-Nixon years “a betrayal to Hunter … whose beliefs found flower in the righteous upheavals of the sixties.” With the end of both Nixon’s career and the war in Vietnam, the dynamics that drove Thompson’s most vital work were largely in America’s rear-view mirror. McKeen classifies much of what drove American journalism after Watergate and Vietnam as “trivialities”; after Nixon’s resignation, he writes, “it was as if a switch had been turned off.” Almost overnight, a press that had brought national awareness to the struggle to undo racism, political malfeasance and a brutal and unjust war in Southeast Asia seemingly turned much of their attention to celebrity culture.

This shift in American journalism was a recurrent theme in Doonesbury in the 1970s. In a previous post looking at Doonesbury and disco culture, I mentioned that both Duke and Rick Redfern ended up on the celebrity beat, with Duke covering Cher and Gregg Allman for Rolling Stone while Rick covered Ryan O’Neal for People and attended professional development seminars on “effective celebrity journalism.” 

Duke became Trudeau’s mouthpiece for pointed critiques of Rolling Stone’s shift away from its counter-cultural orientation to embracing and promoting celebrity culture. In a 1976 strip, Honey asks Duke about Rolling Stone being a “revolutionary paper.” Duke sarcastically agrees, inasmuch as the magazine “throwing a sequin-laced coming out party for Jimmy Carter’s campaign staff [is] revolutionary.” Rolling Stone, Duke argues, had “gone to hell ever since its paunchy, power-crazed editor started hanging out at 21.” In a later strip, Duke criticizes Rolling Stone editor “Yawnn” Wenner for hiring elite figures like Caroline Kennedy (who wrote for Rolling Stone), and Jack Ford and William Hearst (both wrote for Outside, an outdoors magazine started by Wenner); Duke dismisses the latter pair as “a forestry major and Patty’s cousin! … products of a long, arduous executive search, I’m sure.”

In 1977, an enraged Duke asks Wenner: “How much did you pay John Belushi to pretend he’s me?Rolling Stone’s loss of counter-cultural relevance overlapped with a corresponding shift in Thompson’s literary vitality, reflected in a growing audience that was more interested in reading about Thompson’s reputed Belushi-like excess than in his journalistic insights. 

As he’d developed a literary style that blurred the lines between fact and fiction and put himself at the heart of the story, Thompson created the character/alter ego of Raoul Duke – best known as the central figure in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – as a mouthpiece, a way to “insert his opinion into stories and still make what he wrote appear to be journalism.” While the Raoul Duke persona drove his writing to revolutionary places, it had unforeseen negative effects on Thompson’s reception and ultimately his legacy. As McKeen argues, the “acid-gobbling, whiskey-swilling demon” attracted “a legion of fans who had never read a word he had written … a crowd drawn to Amazing Drug Tales.” Celebration of this fast-living persona overtook Thompson’s literary reputation. 

Trudeau saw how a significant chunk of Thompson’s readership was more interested in his larger-than-life personality than they were in his insights into the American Dream. While he was in Pago Pago, Duke received a letter from a fan who missed Duke’s “powerful descriptions of stench-filled hotel rooms, cataleptic drug experiences and sickening acts of total insanity.” This led to Duke taking a break from governing Samoa and returning to Rolling Stone, where he covered Gregg Allman and Cher (side note: unlike GBT, who likened their music to “a field of intensely unpleasant vibrations that can sterilize a frog at a distance of 200 yards,” I am a huge fan of the Allman Brothers Band). A fan approaches Duke to compliment his latest article about Cher (“It was terrifically savage! You used words like they were blunt instruments!”) While I try to stay away from leaning on reproducing GBT’s drawings as a way to avoid the heavy lifting of analytic interpretation, I’m just going to let the image speak for itself: Trudeau obviously didn’t think much of Thompson’s most dedicated fans. 

Yet, as we’ll see, while Trudeau may have been critical of how Thompson’s fans read Gonzo journalism, Thompson had no appreciation for how GBT portrayed him as that fanbase became a significant obstacle to his literary development. Duke’s post-China career as a public speaker leaned heavily on Thompson’s simultaneous embrace of, and revulsion for, his particular brand of fame/infamy, and Thompson placed much of the blame for his literary stagnation on a comic-strip character and his creator. 

***

In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president; while Duke originally believed that his position as Ambassador to China was safe, in June 1977, word came down: he was being replaced by former United Auto Workers chief Leonard Woodcock. (One of GBT’s best lines comes from this moment: when Honey speculates that Woodcock had been selected for communist China because of his “great sensitivity to the plight of the working class,” Duke replies: “ALL labor leaders are sensitive to the working class. That’s how they avoid belonging to it.”)

In my first post about Duke in China, I mentioned that the French intellectual Andre Malraux, who wrote several novels about China, had advised Nixon and Kissinger about dealing with Mao. Malraux’s writing was steeped in Orientalist tropes about “coolies, bamboo shoots, opium smokers, destitutes, and prostitutes.” As Duke imagines his post-China life, he engages in similar Orientalist imagery: he’ll “become an old China hand,” living in Hong Kong, “[sitting] around in shabby linen suits, drinking gin, filing dispatches to stodgy London journals,” and shacking up with “an enigmatic Indonesian cabaret singer with a heart-shaped face and luminous green eyes.” 

Duke’s future, however, would not find him living out an Orientalist film noir: instead, he’d spend the rest of his life bouncing from one scam to another, often cynically trying to make a buck off human misery. Immediately after returning to the States, he planned to buy an apricot farm from a guy named “Tony Placebo,” not to harvest the fruit, but to sell the pits to produce laetrile, a quack cancer treatment that gained popularity in the mid-1970s. (Note to my fellow cancer people: laetrile “has not been shown to treat or prevent cancer [and] is associated with serious adverse effects.”)

When Duke is out-scammed by Placebo he, like Thompson in the mid-70s, ends up on the college lecture circuit. These episodes speak to two dynamics central to McKeen’s book: Thompson’s relationship with the Raoul Duke persona (and the effect of that relationship on his work), and his relationship with Doonesbury’s Duke and his creator. 

McKeen describes how an evening with Hunter Thompson at the local campus lecture hall was unlike a typical academic literary event: Thompson gave no readings, nor did he “lecture” in the conventional sense of the word. He often showed up intoxicated, and launched directly into answering questions from fans, giving them the performance they craved. GBT’s portrayals of these events take the model to extremes: beyond that, they underline Duke’s role as a personification of post-Nixonian cynicism, sleaze and greed. 

At one event, Duke mirrors Thompson, telling his audience that he’s “going to pass on the formal remarks” in favor of “questions from the floor.” Unlike Thompson, Duke makes his cynicism about the entire affair plain. The first question comes from a disappointed attendee: “How much do you get paid for college ‘lectures’ like this?” Duke is clear he’s only in it for the money: “Two thousand dollars. Time for one more question.” At a later event – one that Duke only agreed to do because of “the $3,000 honorarium” – Duke’s sleaziness is foregrounded: he insists on being paid in advance “in tens and twenties” and spends the money on drugs, though he’d claimed he required the cash because “his mother needed an operation right away.” When called out for another sloppy, stoned performance – “Considering your sizable lecture fee, paid in part by class dues, can you think of any reason why we shouldn’t be grossly insulted?” – Duke feigns embarrassment and replies that he was “hoping to avoid the subject of [his] mother’s tumor.” 

While Trudeau didn’t shy away from using Thompson’s college engagements to develop the nasty side of Duke’s character, those strips also underline GBT’s aforementioned unflattering portrayal of Thompson’s fans as people following a trend instead of engaging with a serious writer. Instead of being insulted at Duke’s mercenary attitude towards his public speaking work, a moderator eggs on his cynicism: “OUTRAGEOUS! just incredibly OUTRAGEOUS!” A few weeks later, Duke speaks to an audience of Young Republicans, high as a kite (…in a nod to a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Duke takes “something very special. An extract made from the pineal glands of male adolescent iguanas). The arc’s climax finds him being applauded by a room full of hallucinatory sheep – an obvious dig at the herdlike mentality at play in many fanbases – as the moderator enthusiastically praises his disjointed performance: “BLEAT! That was just BLEAT!

McKeen sees the lectures as the moment where the line dividing Hunter Thompson from Raoul Duke became increasingly blurry. Thompson occupied a space in which his embrace of, and attempts to live up to the reputation of, the Raoul Duke persona lived in tension with his resentment at how adulation for Raoul Duke was keeping him from doing his best work. As the Gonzo artist and longtime Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman maintained, Thompson “became a prisoner of his own cult.” 

Thompson didn’t only blame Raoul Duke for his diminished literary output. McKeen focuses extensively on how Thompson and his associates accused Doonesbury’s Duke, and Garry Trudeau personally, of undermining Thompson’s reputation as a serious journalist by fueling a cult of personality that “suffocated him and made it impossible to do his work.” The historian Douglas Brinkley, a close friend of Thompson’s and his literary executor, pulls no punches in his framing of the effect that Doonesbury had on Thompson’s literary development: 

He was one of the hottest writers in the country, then the comic strip came along, and that humiliated him; he would have been a different guy without that comic strip.

Thompson was particularly outraged that GBT wrote Duke as unproductive and anachronistic. It’s easy to see why some strips offended Thompson’s professional pride. When Duke is assigned a 15,000-word piece on snorkeling, he gets “good and wired” and lets “the words just [pour] out,” but what the submit is literal gibberish; the following day, he dictates the piece on tape, but all that’s revealed on playback is stoned laughter and snorting noises. The barbs about Duke’s work and relevance only became more pointed. When he’s dropped from Rolling Stone’s masthead and the magazine runs his obituary (“Hack Writer Presumed Dead at 45”) Duke confronts Wenner, who points out that Duke “[hadn’t] produced an article in years.” Two years later, Wenner is more explicit: when Duke proposes writing about the massive Tangshan earthquake for Rolling Stone, Wenner replies that he’s only interested in publishing writers who had “the kind of talent you once had before it evaporated with your brains five years ago.

I’ve always known that Thompson was no fan of Trudeau: a well-known anecdote involves Thompson threatening to “rip his lungs out.” Ross Trudeau, GBT’s son, recounts a grisly story about Thompson and his father:

I was well into my 20s when, while looking up at a portrait of Hunter S. Thompson, it occurred to me to ask if Dad had ever met the man he’d lampooned for decades. Dad said that no, he hadn’t, but he’d once received a package from Thompson filled with used toilet paper. I stood blinking at him, mouth open. He smiled and shrugged.

Given the hyper-exaggerated exploits and attitudes he ascribed to himself and friends like Steadman and (especially) Oscar Acosta in his own writing (Acosta was depicted as particularly beastly as Dr. Gonzo, Raoul Duke’s accomplice in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas),  I was somewhat shocked at the depth of Thompson’s animosity towards Trudeau: beyond inspiring threats of violence and an infantile stunt, it fueled a disturbing paranoia on Thompson’s part. When Rolling Stone put Duke on the cover, Thompson saw it as “Wenner’s way of getting back at me for some of the things I’ve said about him.” McKeen reveals that, given how Doonesbury sometimes came eerily close to reflecting actual goings-on in Thompson’s life, Thompson believed Trudeau had a mole among his associates – a story that Trudeau accomplice Nicholas von Hoffman confirms. Von Hoffman recounts how Thompson told him that Trudeau 

…had surrounded him with spies and informers who had infiltrated his home and violated his family’s privacy. He said that every domestic secret, everything that took place between him and his wife, Sandy, was being relayed to Garrybaldi (von Hoffman’s nickname for GBT), who was putting it all in the strip.

Trudeau’s response to von Hoffman (unsurprisingly, given Thompson’s consistent centering of himself in his writing) was that “he obtained the intimate details of Hunter Thompson’s private life by reading his books and articles.” 

***

Going on twenty years after Thompson’s death, he remains central to any appreciation of American letters of the 1960s and 70s. Most of his output remains in print, recent years have seen the publication of multiple biographies of Thompson, several previously-unpublished works of his are now available, including three volumes of his correspondence, and a new fiftieth-anniversary edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas recently hit the shelves. 

During the Trump years and in the continuing madness that is American political culture, it’s not unusual to see social media posts lamenting Thompson’s absence, as though his commentary would shed light on our horrible times as it did when he was in his prime. As much as Thompson’s writing has helped me understand an era I’m obsessed with, I disagree with those takes: Thompson was a product of a distinct moment, and I can’t imagine him bringing anything new or particularly insightful to the table at this point. Hunter S.Thompson will still be on reading lists in history, literature, and journalism departments for decades to come, but I find it hard to imagine anything he wrote after Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail making the cut. 

I have to be honest here and say that while there will be a similar cut-off point separating the most vital moments of  Garry Trudeau’s work from the stuff that doesn’t rise to the standards he set, right now, I’m too close to the material to give a meaningful, objective analysis of where that line might be drawn.

Wherever that line may fall, Duke continued to play a critical role in Doonesbury’s take on American politics and culture long after Thompson’s literary peak: from drugs in professional sports to the Falklands War to his relationship to Donald Trump to the American invasion of Iraq, Duke has been at the heart of one writer’s attempts to chronicle and satire the long, slow decline of an empire. 

***

CODA: Life-Imitates-Art Department. McKeen reports that in May 2000, Thompson accidentally shot and wounded his assistant/caregiver Deborah Fuller while trying to scare off a bear. What he doesn’t mention is that this incident closely resembles a Doonesbury arc from 1981, in which Duke shoots his caretaker, Zeke Brenner, believing he was a raccoon.

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