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Gonzo journalist's life explored in interesting biography

The Strange
and Savage Life
of Hunter S. Thompson
By E. Jean Carroll.
Dutton.
$25, 341 pages.

By Douglas D. Keller
Chairman

Thompson has a unique ability to capture the mood and feel of an event with a piercing truthfulness which transforms the story into an experience for the reader.

E. Jean Carroll takes to her task of chronicling Hunter's life by combining an oral history from Thompson's friends, family, and acquaintances with a fictitious gonzo tale of an ornithologist, Laetitia Snap, locked in Thompson's empty cesspool and forced to write his definitive biography. Fortunately for the reader, the fictitious sections become shorter as the book progresses in favor of longer oral history passages. For those that have not read of Thompson's drug-infested, libidinous lifestyle, Miss Snap's diatribe paints a fairly authentic picture. However, the reader learns a lot more from the characters who have grown up/partied/worked with Thompson.

The picture we get of Thompson is one of a "hunter," but we never really learn what Thompson is hunting for in his life. The oral history begins with Hunter's formative years as an aspiring southern gentleman in Louisville, Ky. After his father's death, Hunter's energy increasingly turned from the athletic club and literary society to juvenile delinquency, which eventually landed him in jail before he could graduate high school. Jail led to a stint in the Air Force where he started writing sports for the base newspaper. After a short time with a small New York newspaper and a Puerto Rican bowling magazine, Thompson embarked upon his career as a free-lance journalist and fiction writer. Along the way he has tangled with Hell's Angels, run for the sheriff of Aspen, Colo. gone on the presidential campaign trail with George McGovern, and taken on the corruption and filth in Las Vegas.

What is Thompson searching for? The ultimate drug? A literary masterpiece? Upon finishing the book, we don't know for sure and are left with the feeling that neither does Hunter. The book does provide clues into Thompson's peculiar beliefs, one of which was that he could get laid as often as he wanted with anyone he pleased but that his wife could not. In an interview with Carroll, Thompson also reflects upon being the inspiration for Duke in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury, "I wonder who else in the history of this country had to be a comic strip character and try to work at the same time."

One of the interesting strengths of the oral history section is that the reader gets opposing viewpoints on Hunter's life -- sometimes within the same comment. McGovern, for example, says, "He kind of admires old-fashioned values. And I think that he's secretly envious of people that are happily married, I don't know, it's just a thought that came to me. But he's too strenuous to take for long stretches. I just really don't know how a woman can handle him. How someone can handle him for more that a weekend. Do you suppose he's a great lover?"

Hunter at its best provides us with intimate details of Thompson's life which only close friends and loved ones are privy to. Hunter also answers the question of whether Thompson has experienced everything that he has written about. He has and the book seems to indicate that Thompson's writing is but a children's book story of the actual events. Hunter is an entertaining book which provides an interesting, but spotty glimpse of the life of Hunter S. Thompson. For fans of his writing, this book is a must-read that will answer some questions while tantalizingly leaving others open.