Here’s another cheat review – this book is also a paperback, rather than a Kindle title, and one that I purchased back in Chiang Mai in a very cool place called Backstreet Books.
I was a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson when I was younger and as such I have a tattoo of his Gonzo fist on my left forearm. Although I don’t read him much these days, I still consider him one of my primary literary influences. Perhaps I felt that, after several years of not reading his work, he was not as great as I remembered… perhaps his work was a tad childish, even.
How wrong I was. A few weeks ago, in Laos, I got stuck into The Great Shark Hunt – a collection of Thompson’s finest work before 1980. Indeed, this was his best period as a writer, when he wrote his masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as the brilliant Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. This was Thompson at his peak, particularly documenting the counterculture of the late sixties and its subsequent demise, as well as his constant hatred for Richard Nixon.
The Great Shark Hunt chronicles the development of Gonzo, Thompson’s signature style. Although the book doesn’t follow any chronological pattern, the stories are dated, and we see him becoming increasing politicized, as well as finding his way from off-beat reporter to Gonzo journalist. His early works were short and somewhat restrained, while later they become rambling and filled with vitriol and humour.
What I found rereading Thompson’s best works was a profound sense that this is a man who understood the rhythm of speech, and that his work was to some extent intended to be read aloud. A few weeks before buying this book I watched some videos on YouTube wherein other people read his work, and I noticed for the first time just how he laughed at certain points, and how he loved to hear his words being read aloud.
In Thompson’s writing there is something – and I know he would’ve hated the comparison – Ginsbergian in the long-breath sentences. He was famous for his overuse of certain words (like doomed, swine, and atavistic) but his brilliance lay not in overstatement or shock, but in the subtle building of feeling and emotion in his sentences. There is a famous story of him typing out The Great Gatsby to get a feel for the prose, and indeed Thompson’s own work is now similarly copied by hordes of imitation Gonzo writers because he succeeded. In places, his work is as beautiful as any great American literature.
There are no weak links in this collection, although there are sometimes a few paragraphs of pages where the quality drops slightly. Yet this vast, dense volume is one of the great writers of the late twentieth century on his very best form and it is, for anyone interested in Thompson or Gonzo, an absolute must-read book.