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In his introduction to the The Proud Highway -- the first in what apparently will be several volumes of Hunter Thompson's letters -- editor Douglas Brinkley informs us that, from the time he was a boy, Thompson made carbon copies of his letters, "hoping they would be published someday as a testament to his life and times." And if that doesn't suggest someone in need of an editor, I don't know what does. This first volume of The Fear and Loathing Letters covers the years from 1955 to 1967 -- that's roughly from the time Thompson joined the Air Force until just after the publication of his book Hell's Angels and before the beginning of his Rolling Stone tenure.
These letters show that the mind-set that burst fully formed upon the world in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was present in Thompson from a very early age. The talent for violent invective and hipster put-on, the snarlingly self-righteous threats, the taste for all manner of chemical debauchery, is owned up to again and again in letters to friends and lovers, editors and Air Force superiors, creditors, landlords and any poor bastard who had the bad luck to run afoul of him. What hasn't been seen before is the young writer's ambition, the worship he lauded upon certain authors or books (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nelson Algren, the William Styron of Lie Down in Darkness -- "This man is a Writer," proclaims Thompson -- but not of Set This House on Fire). He desperately desired to join their company, and he had confidence that he would.
Thompson is a writer who needs rage. He's best when he finds a target worthy of the venom he can incubate. That's why he was always the most murderous and accurate of all Nixon haters. And why the only work in the last few years that matched his glory days was his Rolling Stone obit for Nixon. In the midst of the sentimental lies that accompanied Tricky's demise (and by the way, did anyone actually see the body?), Thompson's poison felt like a drink of clear water. That rage is best seen here in the letters written after JFK's assassination, with Thompson's mourning translating itself into disgust and fear of what lay ahead. It's less impressive when it's being snottily leveled at a woman friend who had the temerity to suggest Thompson read Jack Kerouac.
It's hard to reject the young romantic who -- writing about women, his own ambitions, his beloved Doberman -- makes himself unexpectedly felt here. It's also hard to deny the tediousness of this collection. There are plenty of reminders, though, of why this drug-addled coyote has been taken to readers', and not a few writers', hearts. "Too many people in this gutless world," he writes to one editor, "have come under the impression that writers are a race of finks, queers and candy asses to be bilked, cheated and mocked as a form of commercial sport. It should be noted, therefore ... that some writers possess .44 Magnums and can puncture beer cans with ... that weapon at a distance of 150 yards." Sometimes, as Blanche DuBois said, there's God so suddenly. -- Salon