Dr. Hunter S. Thompson - his honorific earned by sending a few dollars to a mail-order divinity-diploma mill back in the 1960s - did not invent participatory journalism, in which the reporter takes center stage and objectivity, such as it is, takes second place to yarn-spinning of a sometimes weird and often unlikely nature. His heroes Ernest Hemingway and A. J. Liebling got there first, as did near-contemporaries such as Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton. But Thompson made a particular brand of participatory journalism, fueled by drink and drugs, laced with sports and politics, his own. Never saintly, he became the patron saint of madcap storytelling in the bargain, recounting savage journeys into terror and hell and even Hawaii, the sort of thing practiced today by Richard Grant (God's Middle Finger), Charles Bowden (Blues for Cannibals), Deanne Stillman (Twentynine Palms) and many other acolytes.
Dead by his own hand in 2005, Thompson had hoped to live only to 27, coincidentally the age at which Jim, Jimi and Janis, his fellow celebrants of the decadent '60s, checked out. He made it to age 67 instead, and he was none too happy about the result, his body worn out by a legendary 24/7 diet of adult beverages and illicit substances. (The chemical component of his mythos is no myth.)
He was also dispirited by what he memorably called "the vengeful, bloodthirsty cartel of raving Jesus-freaks and super-rich money mongers who have ruled this country for at least the last twenty years," and he knew whereof he spoke, having written the brilliant Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a book that remains indispensable to understanding that strange election and strange time.
Thompson has become the subject of a modest literary and cinematic industry since, with a couple of very fine productions mixed in with the usual dreck. On the film front, Alex Gibney's new documentary Gonzo does fine service, even if it is somewhat redundant of Tom Thurman's 2006 film Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride.
On the book front, close behind Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis' The Kitchen Tapes: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson (which illustrates, among other things, that a life of crime is always helped along by friendship with the sheriff), comes University of Florida journalism professor William McKeen's Outlaw Journalist, a robust, readable and altogether illuminating biography.
McKeen helps tease out fact from legend. What is more, though a longtime friend of Thompson's, he steers well clear of the hagiography of previous biographical pieces.
Indeed, he has enough dirt on the good doctor to have merited a stern memo from his subject: "I warned you about writing that vicious trash about me. Now you better get fitted for a black eyepatch, just in case one of yours gets gouged out by a bushy-haired stranger in a dimly-lit parking lot. How fast can you learn Braille? You are scum." Those were some of the nicer sentiments Thompson uttered - and apparently they were meant with all affection.
So it is that, McKeen tells us, Thompson was an exuberant philanderer, inattentive husband and father, and unrepentant racist, along with his well-documented pharmaceutical hobbies. Perhaps worse, to a purist, are the hints (never raised to charges) that Thompson may have borrowed too liberally from the work of others, and that - no breaking news here, really - he may have invented details and quotations in the stories he filed.
A close reader of zeitgeist - his account of the shift from radical '60s to me-me '70s, and what all that did to Thompson's tortured soul, is superbly rendered - McKeen is also concerned to give credit where credit is due.
By his account, Thompson's first book, Hell's Angels, was the brainchild not of the author but of Nation editor Carey McWilliams, himself a groundbreaking journalist. British artist Ralph Steadman and Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta, both of whom figure so prominently in Thompson's best-known book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, also contributed more to the oeuvre than Thompson might have wished to acknowledge. So did the editor who inspired that book in the first place, born of a contract to write a 250-word caption for a photo essay on motorcycles. The caption swelled, and so did Thompson's legend.
And yet, and yet: no right-minded reader would have expected Thompson to have feet that were not of clay. The most valuable part of McKeen's lucid, fluent account is in its reckoning of just how innovative Thompson was as a storyteller and chronicler, to say nothing of creative bookkeeper. (Every freelance writer on the planet will want to study the secrets, here revealed, of how Thompson managed to live an extravagant lifestyle on next to no money.)
McKeen ably shows how attentive Thompson was to his craft, how driven by his desire to build a literary monument unto himself. "I have to out-Mencken Mencken," he once put it, a statement that may not be so meaningful in this blogospheroidal age.
Whether Thompson succeeded in that quest is a subject for debate, and on that point Outlaw Journalist has something to say, too. McKeen's biography is the best on Thompson to date - though doubtless, the industry being, well, industrious, there will be more to come. Stay tuned.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and he tries to observe the facts whenever he can. His book "Otero Mesa: Saving America's Last Wild Grassland" will be published in the fall.
Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson
By William McKeen
Norton, 448 pages, $27.95