Just over fifty years ago, in 1971, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was published and instantly became a countercultural classic. However, people have always struggled to categorise the book. Is it fiction or non-fiction? Thompson himself considered the distinction outdated. To him, a novel could be journalism and journalism could contain novelistic elements, including completely made-up characters, events and dialogue.
While it is hardly unusual to insert elements of reality into a work of fiction, mixing fiction into journalism is harder to justify, and yet this was one of the trademarks of Gonzo—the name given to Thompson’s unique brand of literary journalism after his infamous report on the 1970 Kentucky Derby. The degree to which Thompson blended fact and fiction changed from day to day and his rationale could differ depending on what he wrote, but this peculiar and controversial mix was always present.
To understand why anyone would seriously consider fiction as a better means of presenting truth than a faithful reporting of objective facts, we need to consider the socio-political context in which Thompson developed his journalistic style. He started out as a journalist in the late fifties, honed his form during the sixties, and had all the elements of Gonzo in place by 1970. It was an era of unprecedented change; a chaotic, materialistic world where the potential for apocalypse loomed in the shape of a mushroom cloud.
For many creative and critical minds, the old ways were simply insufficient for responding to this new world. Countercultures formed around rebellious, experimental artistic practices from jazz to Beat poetry and action painting. Thompson felt that conventional journalism was lacking, too. It appeared to him that politicians were moving faster than journalists, and easily hoodwinked the public with slick campaign slogans and meaningless soundbites. The traditions of journalism meant that a lot went unreported, and Thompson was appalled. The truth, he felt, was not being told, and his country was suffering as a result.
But how does one outwit a savvy politician? How could a journalist convey the reality of American politics to an easily distracted electorate? He explained this solution in a letter to a prospective publisher:
Fiction is a bridge to the truth that journalism can’t reach. Facts are lies when they’re added up, and the only kind of journalism I can pay much attention to is something like Down and Out in Paris and London … But in order to write that kind of punch-out stuff you have to add up the facts in your own fuzzy way, and to hell with the hired swine who use adding machines.
Thompson was a great admirer of George Orwell, especially his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, which purportedly tells the story of the author’s own experiences in those two European capitals but which, of course, is infused with no small measure of fiction. For a start, the timeline has been completely changed and key events charged with tension to make the story more engaging. Even the characters and dialogue were largely invented, and Orwell himself acknowledges this in the introduction to the French edition of 1933, writing, “All the characters I have described in both parts of the book are intended more as representative types of the Parisian or Londoner of the class to which they belong than as individuals.” In Orwell’s mind, he had not made anything up. His characters were composites of various real people, the dialogue was inspired by real conversations, and the events were mostly ones he witnessed, even if they had been slightly dramatized.
Ultimately, his book was a classic because it was enjoyable. Had he prepared a solemn diatribe about poverty and social inequity in Paris and London, it would have had little impact upon the few people who read it, but by infusing it with various fictional elements and making it read more like a novel than a sociological study, he produced a classic, and it was a model that Thompson would follow, albeit with far more exaggeration.
Thompson’s own journalistic career began in the late fifties and took off in 1962, when he began working for a new publication called the National Observer. He was technically a freelancer but contributed often, dispatching reports as he traipsed around South America. He knew that his editors had almost no chance of fact-checking him and so he began to take massive liberties with the truth, essentially submitting pieces of fiction that captured his feelings about South American culture and politics. Like Orwell, everything he wrote was representative of something he saw or heard rather than a literal account. (In fact, he spoke neither Spanish nor Portuguese, so his own fact-gathering abilities were rather limited.)
Take, for example, a 1962 article he wrote for the Observer, in which he explains the basics of Aruban politics for American readers. He begins by introducing several characters. These are, like everyone who features in his South American reporting, rather crude archetypes of various people: simple-minded natives, arrogant colonials, do-gooding aid workers, etc. He even inserts himself as the bumbling gringo reporter, comically unprepared but conveniently placed as a stand-in for the reader. Rather than offer up a dull, conventional overview of the issue, which is the political fragmentation of this island, he lets the characters explain it for him:
Makaku reached over and patted his shoulder. “Ah, Boeboe,” he said gravely. “You are a good friend of mine. I love you like a brother. But after the voting—with tears in my eyes—I am going to hang you.”
He turned back to the American [Thompson]. “You ask who is who in these elections, well by God I tell you—it is the decent people against the cut-throats and the Bolsheviks.”
It goes on like this for a while, as the various characters depict the political divisions of Aruba in an all-too-convenient way. Thompson finishes up with his own opinions, but of course these have been substantiated by the dialogue, so they appear more authoritative than they were.
In an article published the following year, he writes about a wealthy British man smacking golf balls into a favela while sipping a gin and tonic. It is clearly a fabricated scene, yet it conveys precisely the image of privilege run amok that Thompson wanted his readers to understand. Again and again, characters enter stories to fulfil certain roles or deliver humorous or poignant lines. The timing—whether dramatic or comedic—is always a little too perfect to be believed.
This is an incredibly effective means of conveying an idea, but naturally it raises the question of journalistic integrity. Much of what he wrote had, in the words of his editor, a “fairy-story aura.” Even Thompson himself, in a letter to a friend, wrote that his South American reporting “smacked of authenticity,” which seems a tacit admission that it was merely fiction masquerading as fact. If his intention was truly to educate people better than conventional journalists did, how could he possibly defend this technique?
Thompson was not merely a student of George Orwell’s; he was even more influenced by Ernest Hemingway, who once wrote that “If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that if he makes something up it is as it truly would be.” Thompson wholeheartedly agreed, later paraphrasing Hemingway by saying, “If I’m going to go into the fantastic, I have to have a firm grounding in the truth.” And it was essentially this notion that governed his deployment of fiction in his journalism. He felt that whatever he invented was legitimised because he knew it pointed to a truth, even if that truth was hard to prove via conventional means.
Thus, Thompson believed that what he wrote remained true in spite of any fictional elements he added. A person may have been made up, but they were always based upon one or more real people. A conversation may not have actually occurred, but it was a hybrid of several that Thompson had overheard. And Thompson certainly overheard a lot. A heavy drinker from his early teens, he spent a fair amount of time in bars and social clubs, listening to the locals. When questioned by one of his editors, he snapped, “A good journalist hears a lot of things. Maybe I heard some of these stories and didn’t see them. But they sure as hell happened.”
He was also keenly aware that making grand pronouncements or speaking with authority on complex issues was likely to earn him critics, but his Hemingwayan-Orwellian fusion offered a way around this. To a close friend, he advised writing about:
subjects least likely to be contradicted or called into question by people who think they know a lot more about them than you do. You say, for instance, that Spain will undoubtedly go Communist and you will get a lot of noisy shit, perhaps even from the editor you send it to. If, on the other hand, you tell exactly how one frustrated Spaniard spends his waking hours, damn few people are going to be in a position to say you’re wrong.
Of course, if you made it entertaining and somewhat believable, few would even doubt the existence of the “frustrated Spaniard.” For this reason, much of Thompson’s early writing was concerned with the lives of individuals whose situations were a microcosm of larger issues.
By the mid-sixties, Thompson had temporarily moved away from politics and was writing about “fringe types” like bikers, beatniks and barflies. Tall, charming and capable of handling almost any mind-bending substance in large quantities, he was able to ingratiate himself into numerous subcultures and earned a reputation for translating their weird ways for the square world. His 1967 book, Hell’s Angels, made him practically a household name. His bravery had allowed him to ride with the notorious biker gang and he gleefully reported on their violent world, which was utterly alien to most Americans. While the book was mostly accurate, he nonetheless inserted some fabrications, several made-up quotes, a great deal of exaggeration and some amusing fantasy scenes.
Oddly enough, one of the key themes of this article, and much of Thompson’s writing at the time, was the failure of the wider press. In Hell’s Angels, he lambasts various news outlets for incorrectly reporting on the Angels, even picking apart articles for their use of deliberately vague language to insinuate that the Angels had done things that the journalists were unable to prove. He makes some good points, but evidently saw no irony in the fact that his own reporting on the Angels used himself as a source under several fake names. The Angels’ leader, Sonny Barger, later wrote that the book was “a writer’s dream-and-drug induced commentary.”
By the late sixties, with the deaths of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the escalation of violence in Vietnam, and the sense that all the positive social movements of the decade had been co-opted or had simply faded away, Thompson’s writing became angrier. After witnessing police brutality first-hand at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, he became more radical and more experimental and began to view his words as weapons—as an “equalizer” in the battle between the haves and have-nots. In his letters, he wrote of a desire to make more aggressive attempts to fuse fact and fiction, but even he struggled to justify this: it was something that just happened organically as he responded in writing to the events that took place around him.
The election of Richard Nixon was a pivotal moment in his career. It was probably at this point that any lingering shred of faith in convention died away and he chose to infuse his writing with more than just the usual exaggerations and inventions. From that point on, he became increasingly outrageous. His prose oozed vitriol. The subtleties of yore were replaced with violent fantasies. But he was not merely in attack mode. This was not about hurting a politician—for he knew fine well that nothing he could say would bring a tear to Nixon’s eye. Rather, he was coaxing his readers into questioning orthodoxies, challenging them to ask questions about what they were fed by the media. He explains:
Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism—which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.
It is no coincidence that the period between Nixon’s first and second presidential campaigns marked the high point of Thompson’s journalistic career. Not that he only wrote about Nixon. There were various works of angry but comic genius that shattered preconceptions and defined categorisation to the point that he was labelled Gonzo—his own literary genre. But whilst his accounts of horse races, retired skiers and drug-fuelled trips to Las Vegas enthralled readers, it was Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 where Thompson’s use of fiction in journalism was most effective.
This was his account of the 1972 presidential campaign in a series of articles written for Rolling Stone magazine and later compiled as a landmark book, which many would argue ranks among the finest examples of political journalism. It was revolutionary in its attempt to portray the realities of such a campaign faithfully yet non-factually and it was about as unconventional as it is possible to be. By being deliberately outrageous and mixing the real with the imagined, he forces his reader to question the candidates and their claims, while at the same time pointing to the unpleasant truths behind the carefully constructed public faces of these men. When insinuating that candidate Ed Muskie was an abuser of Ibogaine, he is not seriously attempting to convince his reader of this fact; he is merely commenting on the prevalent culture of political reportage and demanding his reader ask whether this absurd suggestion was true or false. When he compares Nixon to a drooling hyena, he is attempting to go beyond the façade created by this master of manipulation and expose his true nature—something no other journalist was capable of doing. When he writes about “the Fixer,” a man who drugs and dupes naïve Washington newcomers into raping children, he is not suggesting that this happens in any literal sense, but highlighting the wildly unethical world of corruption and the lengths that people will go to for power. For this and more, George McGovern’s campaign manager called it “the most accurate and least factual book about the campaign.”
By this point in his career, of course, Thompson had legions of fans and almost all of them knew that what he wrote was not meant to be taken as literal truth. As a famous writer with his own literary brand, he was given the freedom to write what he wanted, whether true or not, and this allowed him to experiment wildly, blurring all distinctions between forms. Thompson had shed the influence of his heroes and created his own literary style—one that was so outrageous and unique that no one could imitate it without sounding like a pretender. It was, perhaps, the perfect form for capturing that important period in American history.
It can be uncomfortable to look back upon the formulation and deployment of Gonzo Journalism, particularly from the perspective of our present, hyper-partisan era, where misinformation and disinformation abound. However, Thompson’s experimental efforts in literary journalism were ground-breaking and even a half century later remain in equal parts hilarious and informative. The interplay of fact and fiction in his work is continually shifting but whenever he strikes the right balance, the results can be devastating, and during his peak years this allowed him to become the pre-eminent satirist of his day, essentially using fiction to present truth more effectively than anyone could through more conventional means.