Bat Country

August 30th, 2008 § 0 comments

“Happy,” I muttered, trying to pin the word down. But it is one of those words, like Love, that I have never quite understood. Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception—especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong. They are too elusive and far too relative when you compare them to sharp, mean little words like Punk and Cheap and Phony. I feel at home with these, because they’re scrawny and easy to pin, but the big ones are tough and it takes either a priest or a fool to use them with any confidence.

hunter-thompson-rum-diary

Perhaps Hunter S Thompson is the true “cynical idealist,” for though it was F. Scott who said it he was no idealist, and perhaps it was F. Scott, not Hunter, who was the true drunk. While Fitzgerald’s characters are predetermined to be crookedly bent toward self-destruction, Thompson’s disheveled characters are happily optimistic in the drunken hours before dawn, about themselves, the world, and the combination of the two—a long road of possibilities stretches out before their blurry eyes. It was “fatalism with a loop hole.” Hunter thoughtfully ponders notions of luck, or “survival by coordination, as it were.” Societal hope for Hunter seemed to lie on edges, near boarders, and in the fringe. Or was it doom? He covered unlikely places— San Juan, Las Vegas, the Campaign Trail—and indulged in “controversial” habits—drugs, guns, journalism, and alcohol. Thompson creates stories full of mean little words collectively surrounding the larger ones, giving them an unusual new shape.

If I wrote about France from beginning to end it would be an inconsistent story of experiences piled on top of each other, good days and bad, the loves and the hates rolled into a general impression of a place, a time, and a lifestyle that surrounded an expatriate. The Rum Diary is a grubby novel encompassing just those things. The book casually, almost leisurely, describes a time and place struggling under the clash of cultures and interests, between American capital and local poverty—it seems amazing to be able do nothing good for a country and still get rich from it. Hunter doesn’t like the locals any more than he likes American entrepreneurs, the old city any more than the new resorts, and his only consistent dislike is aimed viciously, though deservedly, at tourists. Though novel unravels toward the end, becoming more about Hunter than the place he describes, I enjoy the brutality of his language, the blunt light he casts around the characters he carefully draws. In a 1970’s interview he stated, “if you read me carefully I am a very accurate journalist,” and I read more fact into his fiction than I sometimes think I should. The facts beneath his novels provide a hard and poignant bed for his stories, and his own cynicism was based in a reality he observed and at the same time tested.

The new documentary about Thompson, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S Thompson, seems wrongly titled, because it shows, in one interview after another, that life was the work for Dr. Hunter S Thompson. It is a documentary full of flashy editing and more agendas than could be crammed into the allotted amount of time. Though the life it follows was certainly not a “normal” one, 22 guns and all of them loaded, the story is too familiar. There is a repetitious pattern that follows, or rather haunts and exploits, figures of talent, subversion, and intellect, in our culture. While Hunter S. Thompson is certainly not a man I would claim to admire, the documentary left me with a queasy, guilty feeling at having watched a life picked apart by vultures; underneath the persona I can sense the struggle. As he states toward the end of The Run Dairy, “the delicate illusions that get us through life can only stand so much strain.”

Sounds of a San Juan night, drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people getting ready and people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night.

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