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"Fear and Loathing in Elko"
Page added 1997
Last updated: July 2005
RS 622 (January 23, 1992) marked the return of long articles by HST. His previous work had been in RS 605, "The Taming of the Shrew", which was a one page review of Kitty Kelly's Nancy Reagan biography, and "Welcome to the Nineties" (RS 590, headlined on the cover as "Victory and Vengeance by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" - more or less the 90s chapter from Songs of the Doomed). Aside from articles about his "lifestyle bust" (RS 581 - "Trial of Hunter S. Thompson" and RS 582 "Charges Dropped Against Hunter S. Thompson" both by Mike Sager), there was also a 20th anniversary issue in 1987 featuring the P.J. O'Rourke interview and photo by Annie Lebovitz. Plus a handcoloured photo of HST and Oscar in Las Vegas with a brief passage from the book - this was "The Sequins were Michael's Idea" in RS 429. However, HST's last piece prior to "Shrew" was "Dance of the Doomed" (RS 447). Like "Polo Is My Life", this article is marked "To be continued" at the end, but it never has to date.
The story spans about seven or eight pages in Rolling Stone, not to mention five superb new Ralph Steadman caricatures. It starts and ends with a letter to Jann. For a time, HST and Jann Wenner were at odds. HST was constantly being fired and rehired - or as one put it, it was "the world's worst employee working for the world's worst boss". I think that this is part of HST's reconciliation with Wenner - HST wrote only two or three articles for Rolling Stone in the eighties, including "A Dog Took My Place".
The opening is strong, a beautiful testimony to perceived beauty and harsh reality:
God damn, I wish you were here to enjoy this beautiful weather with me. It is autumn, as you know, and things are beginning to die. It is so wonderful to be out in the crisp fall air, with the leaves turning gold and the grass turning brown, and the warmth going out of the sunlight and big hot fires in the fireplace while Buddy rakes the lawn. We see a lot of bombs on TV because we watch it a lot more, now that the days get shorter and shorter, and darkness comes so soon, and all the flowers die from freezing.
Oh, God! You should have been with me yesterday when I finished my ham and eggs and knocked back some whiskey and picked up my Weatherby Mark V .300 Magnum and a ball of black Opium for dessert and went outside with a fierce kind of joy in my heart because I was Proud to be an American on a day like this. If felt like a goddamn Football Game, Jann -- it was like Paradise.... You remember that bliss you felt when we powered down to the farm and whipped Stanford? Well, it felt like That.
I digress. My fits of Joy are soiled by relentless flashbacks and ghosts too foul to name....Oh no, don't ask Why. You could have been president, Jann, but your road was full of forks, and I think of this when I see the forked horns of these wild animals who dash back and forth on the hillsides while rifles crack in the distance and fine swarthy young men with blood on their hands drive back and forth in the dusk and mournfully call our names....
O Ghost, O Lost, Lost and Gone, O Ghost, come back again.
Right. and so much for autumn. The trees are diseased and the Animals get in your way and the President is usually guilty and most days are too long, anyway....So never mind my poem. It was wrong from the start. I plagiarized it from an early work of Coleridge and then tried to put my own crude stamp on it, but I failed.
So what? I didn't want to talk about fucking autumn, anyway. I was just sitting here at dawn on a crisp Sunday morning, waiting for the football games to start and taking a goddamn very brief break from this blizzard of Character Actors and Personal Biographers and sickly Paparazzi that hovers around me these days (they are sleeping now, thank Christ -- some even in my own bed). I was sitting here all alone, thinking, for good or ill, about the Good Old Days.
Enclosed with Jann's letter is an article by HST's alter ego, sports editor Raoul Duke, which HST fears will show up in both the Men's and Women's washrooms. "He was harmless once," HST writes, but he "must have been drunk when he wrote this". Duke, oddly enough, tried to tweak a secretary's nipples.
On the night in question, HST was innocently " about eighty-eight or ninety miles an hour in a drenching, blinding rain on U.S. 40 between Winnemucca and Elko with one light out" when he came across a bad accident...the victim turns out to be none other than Judge Clarence Thomas (referred to as "The Judge" who also happens to be accompanied by two hookers.
Like any conscientious and helpful motorist, HST offers them a ride. They end up in Elko, Nevada, renown for its cowboy poetry conventions. The place has special meaning for Doc, because about 10 or 15 years previously, HST had attended a "secret gathering of the power elite" in 1974 with Dick and Doris Goodwin and Adam Walinksy about running for president or re-vitalizing the Democratic party for 1976. I'm not sure if it really happened, but you can read it for yourself in Songs of the Doomed (p148-159).
The Judge terrifies the owner of one hotel, and somehow HST wakes up in a bathtub, it's water blackened by a newspaper. HST and the Judge are forced to flee to a trailer park, where the Judge hopes he can get some money from a weirdo named F.X. Leach. Leach has gone sideways on a bet that he and the Judge had, and has lost it all. For gonzo fans, this scene is remarkably similar to "Death of a Poet" in Screwjack, but the two are not exactly the same.
The police swoop down on the nervous Leach, and he dies in a shoot-out with police while HST and the Judge are on the lam once again. They arrive at the airport, the Judge commandeers a plane from the two women that own an airfield, and is safely on his way somewhere else, while HST must limp home in car.
Then another story begins, where HST describes several Christmases in New York before winding up with "Harris Wofford" who said HST owed him money and some sad realities about political pasts:
That is politics in the 1990s. Democratic presidential candidates have not been a satisfying investment recently. Camelot was thirty years ago, and we still don't know who killed Jack Kennedy. That lone bullet on the stretcher in Dallas sure as hell didn't pass through two human bodies, but it was the one that pierced the heart of the American Dream in our century, maybe forever.
Camelot is on Court TV* now, limping into Rehab clinics and forced to deny low-rent Rape accusations in the same sweaty West Palm Beach courthouse where Roxanne Pulitzer went on trial for fucking a trumpet and lost.
This reminds me of a quote by Steve Rubell, one of the co-owners of Studio 54. While walking down the street in New York one day, he met some people that were regulars at the club...coming out of a rehab center. The irony is that only HST seems to live the same lifestyle he did twenty years ago, and he wonders why others weren't able to maintain. Did they grow up? Did the times change too fast? Is the nation too apathetic?
Underneath, "Elko" is surprisingly sentimental. The vicious wit is still there in copious amounts, but the tone is that things used to be different. The metaphor at the beginning where it is fall and everything is dead and dying is a sign of change and hibernation. Not surprisingly, the article ends with the next season, winter, although HST hints at Easter too.
The main idea is that it is harder to "get away" with things, and that someone or something is constantly watching. For example, most people aren't Hunter S. Thompson. HST finds the perfect foil in ridiculing the Judge, as a wild, whore-hopping gambler with a penchant for loud music and trashing hotel bills. What if, "Elko" asks, Clarence Thomas was really more depraved than previously thought?
HST projects his own brush with sexual harassment lawsuits in Raoul Duke, who appears as the author of a letter he sent to HST.
I think there is more to Elko, even so. It can also be considered another one of HST's works that brood on the "death of fun" and shows that laws are dividing men and women in more ways than legislators had intended. "Elko" happened at a time when political correctness was in full force, and at the risk of not getting hurt, Americans sacrificed their sense of fun and humor. One of the "content" lines at the beginning of Part One of this story was "a nation of jailers". The US puts more people in prison than any other country, and a gander at some prison mail order catalogs suggest that they have become an industry themselves. If so, that makes "Elko" a cautionary tale, that any small act can cause one to be put away for many years. HST touched on this theme several times in Generation of Swine, when in one column he described how smoking in the parking lot was not a considerable offence when he was young, but now a young person can be forced to "pee in a bottle" and the results could possibly ruin his life forever.
The article comes full circle by the end, and a careful storyline has the reader harking back to the beginning:
Hell, you afford to get mixed up with wild strangers in those days -- without fearing for your life, or your eyes, or your organs, or all of your money or even getting locked up in prison forever. There was a sense of possibility. People were not so afraid, as they are now.
You could run around naked without getting shot. You could check into a motel in Winnemucca or Elko when you were lost in a midnight rainstorm -- and nobody called the police on you, just to check out your credit and your employment history and your medical records and how many parking tickets you owed in California.
There were Laws, but they were not feared. There were Rules, but they were not worshiped....like Laws and Rules and Cops and Informants are feared and worshiped today.
Like I said: It was a different time. And I know the Judge would tell you the same thing, tonight, if he wanted to tell you the Truth, like I do.
The article enigmatically ends "TO BE CONTINUED". It never has. I think this is a nod to Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost, which ends the same way.
* For those too young to remember, William Kennedy Smith went on trial for alleged rape in 1991.