Critiquing the Best

One hundred pages in, I've realized Hunter S. Thompson's greatest attributes were his vocabulary, his awareness of the spirit of the 60s, and his dishonesty.
Since buying it over a year ago, I’ve continually put aside Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt – his earliest essays, mostly on sports – in favor of more-recent sports books. Which is kind of silly, when you think about it. It’s like skipping an art exhibition of Monet or Van Gogh to go look at Stefan Duncan paintings.

Now, because The Great Shark Hunt is very dense, I won’t finish it for awhile. Thompson is too stream-of-consciousness, too all-over-the-place to read quickly. I’m sure I’ll take multiple breaks, if only to read something with actual narrative flow.

But having read the first 10 or so stories (just over 100 pages), I’ve discovered the thing that made him such a successful writer/reporter.

Or, rather, the three things:

Vocabulary

Thompson’s command of the English language is unparalleled. No one uses words like Thompson. And it’s not just that Thompson knows a lot of words: Plenty of writers know lots of words, but without knowing the right word for a given phrase, a bigger vocabulary can just be a bigger hindrance.

Thompson’s word choices are perfect– not just descriptive, but also evocative. In a typical Thompson scene, you not only see what he sees, you feel what he feels. If he’s disgusted, you read the scene with the same disgust. If he’s depressed, you feel his depression as your own.

And Thompson’s articles aren’t filled with polysyllabic, nuanced words that only mean one thing. To the contrary, Thompson takes strings of simple words and spins them to the desired effect. Each word triggers the next, until the circuit is complete and the sentence lights up.

Zeitgeist Awareness

The late 1960s and early 70s were a transformational period in American history. The USA that had stayed basically the same from the end of World War 2 until then died, and the USA that would go virtually unchanged until the popularization of the Internet in the late 90s was born.

Because of that, this time period holds a unique place of fascination in the eyes of multiple generations of Americans. The Baby Boomers who grew up during that time recall it with nostalgia and not a little pretension. The previous generation ran scared through that era, perpetually terrified that the widespread social change happening all around would finally crash down upon them. And every subsequent generation looks back with envy at the last time a real force for social change accomplished anything substantive.

Thompson uses that incredibly nuanced vocabulary to capture perfectly the spirit of the late 1960s and early 70s (the zeitgeist). A great example, this classic scene from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:”

Writing like that makes Thompson the most accessible writer to come out of that time period. Anyone trying to gain entry into that time period – either to recall his or her glory days or discover what the fuss was about – can use Thompson as the gateway.

Gleeful Dishonesty

Thompson lies to or scams just about every single person he meets. Usually it doesn’t matter, because these are people we would normally find reprehensible anyway – pompous hotel workers, policemen, drunken rednecks. This is made worse by the unceasingly scornful lens with which Thompson seems to view everybody, decent or not.

Thompson’s dishonesty isn’t what makes him interesting, but the joy that seems to come with it. I think Thompson drank too much and did too many drugs to be considered “happy,” but he seems to get the most joy out of making other people feel uncomfortable. If a lie was the way to do it, Thompson lies.

Because Thompson is so good at aligning us with him, we take the same joy in his dishonesty as he did. Which is good, because Thompson is scamming us just as much as he scams the people he writes about. Whatever Thompson says he’s going to write about, ignore it: All Thompson will do is talk about himself. His article on skiing legend Jean-Claude Killy is just about him setting up interviews. His Super Bowl piece is just about him wandering drunkenly through the hotel. The latter article is even more dastardly, because in it he actually writes about the hackneyed, half-ass job he does of writing up the game itself.

Thompson is a fantastic writer, and he wrote a lot about sports in his early days, but his actual sports writing abilities are only mediocre. It’s his vocabulary, his connection to the 60s and his unabashed dishonesty that made him a legend.

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