January 9, 2014
Guest host Stephen Colbert celebrates a classic by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Thompson was the original bad boy of journalism, creating in the 1960s an entirely new style of reporting called “gonzo” that threw out traditional standards of objectivity. Instead, Thompson became a leading character in his stories, and influenced a generation of writers. He wrote regularly for Rolling Stone, among other magazines, and his other books include Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hells Angels, and Rum Diary.
Colbert says he first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when he was in his 20s: “I was immediately struck by the constant torrent of ideas on every page, the creative destruction and fluid chaos of the experiences that Thompson was poring out at the reader.”
We hear three chapters from this 1972 book, which began as an assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover a high-profile motorcycle race, and winds up being what Thompson called, in the subtitle of the eventual book “a savage journey to the heart of the American dream.” His manic cross-country road trip, fuelled by drugs, tequila, and other people’s money, turns into a kind of metaphor of American excess.
In between readings by Alec Baldwin, Anthony Rapp, and Michael Imperioli, we hear about Thompson’s legacy from friends and literary heirs. Terry McDonell, who interviewed Thompson for The Paris Review, said Thompson’s aim was to be more interesting to his subjects than they were to him, and talks about their long friendship—a wild man who was somehow never scary. Chuck Klosterman, whose style in Killing Yourself to Live was compared to Thompson’s, says it’s impossible to really write like Thompson without living on the edge, and few people can. Fear and Loathing could never be published today, he says, in the age of fact-checking and the Internet, but somehow Thompson’s fabrications and hyperbole, seem essentially, if not actually, true to his times.
Matt Taibbi, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, talks about how Thompson’s essential honesty—warts and all—exposed other people’s hypocrisy. Listen to the Show