The writing style of Hunter S. Thompson
is unmistakable. He writes as it happens, telling his audience exactly what he sees and what he thinks of it at that time. This style—known as Gonzo journalism
—is known for its spontaneity. Thompson often purposely keeps manuscripts, only submitting them when it is absolutely necessary and much too late for any sort editing. This sort of writing and lack of editing acts to create a frenetic pace of information and narrative, and it is rare when Thompson allows himself to slow down and reflect on what is happening, or even on anything he happens to be thinking of at the moment. It is during these reflective moments, however, when the reader recognizes a different side to Thompson’s writing. In full “reflection mode” Thompson ceases his pace, and the rapid-fire hail of information
and occurrences slacks off a little. The reader hears an eloquence
in his literary voice as his thoughts begin to ride across the paper. While many readers recognize this when reading Thompson’s works—most notably his rambling 1971 opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
—when asked about it these readers may have a hard time pinning down what makes Thompson’s writing so unique, or what difference there is between the journalistic
sides of Thompson’s writing. The purpose of this article is go beneath what Thompson is writing about and to examine how he writes it; most notably his varying use of mood between two excerpts from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
. These excerpts were selected as each is thought to be a good example of one of Thompson’s distinct writing styles: Journalistic and Reflective.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas follows Thompson’s alter-ego Raoul Duke and his psychopath companion Dr. Gonzo as they travel to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400, a desert automotive race. Upon reaching the race itself, Thompson/Duke realizes that there is no possible way that the race can be covered in any conventional journalistic sense due to the unorthodox nature of the race and the amount of dust kicked up because of it. Upon this realization he writes:
“It was time, I felt, for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene. The race was definitely under way. I had witnessed the start; I was sure of that much. But what now? Rent a helicopter? Get back in that stinking Bronco? Wander out on that goddamn desert and watch these fools race past the checkpoints? One every thirteen minutes...?”(38)
This is the sort of journalistic pace that readers of Thompson become accustomed to. A series of facts followed by rhetorical questions that are not intended to go any farther than that.
Later in the book, Thompson stops to reflect on the great San Francisco Acid Wave in the mid-sixties. He states that he and all other members of the acid subculture in San Francisco in that period of time had a “fantastic sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning....” (68) He then continues:
“And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in and mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave....
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right sort of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”(68)
Here is the more relaxed Thompson, taking time to recall a feeling and even show a bit of nostalgia for a time already passed. The sentences are longer, with more eloquence shown here than in his reporting on the Mint 400.
As stated in the introduction paragraph, it is important that one takes into account the mood of the sentences in the two example excerpts in order to fully appreciate Thompson’s switch in style. The mood of a sentence refers to the sentence's purpose, whether it is to state something, ask a question, issue a command, or state possibility. These four sentence types are the Indicative mood (statement), Interrogative mood (question), Imperative mood (command) and Conditional mood (possibility). Most likely a reader will never consciously take the mood of any sentence into account when he/she is reading—even the author probably does not write on basis of what type of sentence he wishes to use—yet when analyzing both of Thompson’s styles one sees a difference in the number of times used for each mood type.
In the first example of Thompson’s writing—the “journalistic” side of his writing persona—there is a series of three indicative sentences followed by four interrogative ones. Here Thompson is providing information as to what is happening and how he feels about the situation. “It was time, I felt, for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene. The race was definitely under way. I had witnessed the start; I was sure of that much.”(38) These three indicative sentences make statements informing the reader that the Mint 400 and Thompson’s covering of the event may not go as Thompson originally expected: pure journalism. After this statement he continues with four brief interrogative sentences: “But what now? Rent a helicopter? Get back in that stinking Bronco? Wander out on that goddamn desert and watch these fools race past the checkpoints? One every thirteen minutes...?”(38) With these questions Thompson informs the reader that there are not many options available to him. The questions are purely rhetorical, and are written only to emphasize how absurd the thought of continuing on with his original intentions really is. There is no real way for a journalist like Thompson to cover the Mint 400, and in these four interrogative sentences he manages to illustrate this point by asking the reader what he should do after the recent change of plans. The second interrogative sentence in particular, which serves along with the others as a sort of answer to the first, sets the tone for the paragraph and Thompson’s thoughts when it suggests renting a helicopter. This is of course an absurd idea, although in this book things of this sort do seem possible.
The second example of Thompson’s writing—the “reflective” paragraphs—is quite different in structure. The two paragraphs are dominated by indicative sentences, the second paragraph being one large sentence. Aside from the third sentence, which is conditional, the rest of the six sentences are statements. Thompson here is reflecting on the San Francisco Acid Wave, and in doing so his use of the language asks you to slow down, that this is an introspective moment and that you the reader should disengage from the white-knuckle pace of information and narrative you’ve been receiving. The sentences are longer, and not so rapid-fire. The use of indicative statements is important here, as Thompson is simply providing the reader with the information and feelings necessary to know what it was like to be in San Francisco in the mid-sixties. It is important to Thompson that you the reader know what he is trying to say. The use of the one conditional sentence in the middle of these statements is interesting, especially when one considers that this is a reflection, and that things should probably be kept to statements of time past. A conditional sentence always states possibility of some kind, and it is important that Thompson uses a conditional sentence here as it is used to convey a sense of faith in the future and possibility. Thompson is saying that at the time those involved had a real faith that their “energy would simply prevail.”(68) and that is why the use of a conditional sentence is important. The final sentence is interesting as well. It is forty-six words long, and in itself is its own paragraph. It serves as a sort of stopping point for Thompson’s musing and a point where the reader can stop and think about what he/she has just read. The sentence itself is indicative, stating through metaphor that the feelings of the Acid Wave eventually petered out and “the wave finally broke and rolled back.”(68). This sentence is also ends chapter eight and that only intensifies the pause between the long thought that the reader has just received and quick artillery-like information delivery method that they are about to be thrown back into.
Hunter S. Thompson is undoubtedly an interesting writer, full of concise thoughts and an ability to capture events as they happen and to put them to print without losing much of the original feel intended. Some question his journalistic style, but I feel that he captures most anything better then anyone adhering to the “plain old observation” school of journalism. His use of two varying styles in order to manipulate the reader and achieve an effect is not simply as broad as his ideas and thoughts. nor is it limited to his use of adjectives, verbs and nouns to construct sentences. It is also important to take note of what type of sentences he uses, and how he uses them in context to create “pure Gonzo journalism.”(12)