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P.J. O'Rourke on Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Excerpt): Highlights from Issue 22: The Downfall of American Publishing

Highlights from Issue 22: The Downfall of American Publishing

Photograph by AL SATTERWHITE


Sunday, July 10, 2005

What follows is an excerpt from "Long Live the High Priest of Gonzo: An oral history of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" from Issue 22: The Downfall of American Publishing.

This issue is available for purchase on this site

P.J. O'Rourke on Hunter S. Thompson

One of a dozen friends and colleagues who contributed to our oral history of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, author and satirist P.J. O'Rourke contends that the Good Doctor is perhaps "the best writer of the late 20th century."

Interview by James Hughes

Stop Smiling: Do you have any lasting impressions from Hunter's obituary of Richard Nixon for Rolling Stone in 1994?

P.J. O'Rourke: I liked it all. Hunter was a good friend and I'm a fan of his writing. I wouldn't start sifting through anything specifically. Maybe 40 years from now, if I live that long, I'll look back and decide. Hunter was a poet. I would compare him specifically to Mozart. He heard words in his head the way Mozart heard music. Writers think in words, as opposed to thinking in vague, gummy concepts that most people think in. Well, nobody I've ever encountered thought in words like Hunter. Hunter heard all that stuff that's in his prose. That's how his mind worked. And one of the reasons he would write in intense bursts is because this was going on all the time. Every now and then he would channel it. For various reasons having to do with his personality and his lifestyle and so on, he didn't have the easy facility that Mozart did. Mozart was obviously hearing music all the time. He heard everything as music. They say the same for Beethoven. Maybe Beethoven would be a better example. I mean, Hunter was much more of a romantic. He was an artist, he was a poet. I never really believed in prose poetry until I read Hunter. I always thought it was a cop-out, like people who couldn't rhyme.

SS: Do you think he retained any of the rhythm as he got older?

PJO: Oh, fuck yeah. Maybe the themes weren't perfect for him, or maybe the forms, but did he retain the capacity? Yes, absolutely.

SS: When you were the editor of National Lampoon, did you try to bring Hunter in to write?

PJO: No. It was a different sort of tone. Hunter was always a serious writer. Tom Wolfe's comment that he was the greatest comic writer of the 20th century ? well, I don't know. Define ?comic.? I think Wolfe could've made a better case, at least in bits and pieces, that Hunter was the best writer of the late 20th century. That doesn't mean he wrote the best work. It's not always the best writer who writes the best work. Fitzgerald and Hemingway were better writers than John O'Hara, but I would put up several of O'Hara's books, like Appointment in Samarra and From the Terrace, against any novel I can name by Hemingway, certainly, and probably by Fitzgerald. And yet, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, they were superior writers.

SS: You mentioned Tom Wolfe. Wolfe and the heroes of New Journalism were born in the '30s, and you come along in the late '40s, which puts you in your early 20s when Hunter's great gonzo works were coming out. How did you react to those at the time versus how you look back on them now?

PJO: Oddly enough, I came to Hunter fairly late. When Hunter was writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I would have been a graduate student, or just out. I was interested in all this crap like Robbe-Grillet. Wolfe was the first of the New Journalists that I read, and it was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I admired it enormously for its writing, but actually being a hippie, I considered it fairly inaccurate. It was like an old straight guy's take on the hippie culture. Looking back on it now, I think he actually was pretty accurate, but of course he could only approximate how we were thinking. He didn't know it. The result was probably better than anything accurate could have been. I didn't become a Hunter fan until some time in the late '70s. I think I may have read Hell's Angels first, but that book is so different. It's a wonderful, wonderful book. But it's a different kind of writing, which just goes to show that Hunter had a wide range. He was perfectly capable of doing straight-ahead reporting, when he felt like it.


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