Hunter S. Thompson

I could write something about the death of Hunter S. Thompson, just to try to fit in, but so many others have eulogized him already. Then again, I sort of did that 12 years ago when this piece appeared in issue #3 of my own Plant’s Review of Books:

Hunter and the Haunted

Hunter: the strange and savage life of Hunter S. Thompson
by E. Jean Carroll
Dutton, 1993

Action Figure! The Life and Times of Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke
by G.B. Trudeau
Andrews & McMeel, 1992

There’s a time in the life of every young, male, writer who’s came of age since 1970 or so, when they desire openly or secretly to be "the new Hunter S. Thompson.” The first encounter is usually a drag off of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then they graduate to the harder stuff: Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Then it’s back to Las Vegas, just to get primed for that big novel they’re going to write in a marathon three-day session—bring on the amphetamines, the booze, the broads—this is the stuff Thompson’s work is made of, and the more you have, the better the book’s gonna’ be, right?

After a while, though, those young, male, writers get the picture that Thompson hasn’t really written anything since On the Campaign TrailLas Vegas included—that’s been any good or gone beyond the feeble-yet-ocassionally-punctuated-with-violence diary of a guy whose craft hasn’t gone anywhere in twenty years.

E. Jean Carroll, a frequent contributor to Esquire, has put together a schizoid biography of Thompson that, while effectively chronicling Thompson’s life through a multitude of interviews with family, friends, and associates, shows that the desire to emulate Thompson’s style is not a solely male preserve. In between some of the best-edited and well-constructed oral biography on record, Carrol chronicles the adventures of Laetitia "Tishy” Snap—a world-renowned ornithologist, who has arrived to study Thompson’s peacocks—in breathless Purple Prose:

What with the magnification of the bubbles, the underwater lights, the Jacuzzi vibrations, the heat, the steam, the marijuana, the Chartreuse and the acid, the Doctor’s doodle looked to be a half a yard long and as big around as the calf of my leg. With four or five cullions besides. "Miss Tishy,” said the Doctor, "Take off that sweater!”

What to do with a book like this, Gentle Reader?

As the liner notes, the introduction, the photos, and the text of Hunter remind us, Thompson was and has been the inspiration since 1974 for the character Uncle Duke in G.B. Trudeau’s Pulitzer-winning comic strip "Doonesbury.” Duke’s adventures in that strip have been collected into an anthology that covers his adventures as ambassador in Pago Pago and China, college-circuit speaker, Washington Redskins manager, secret agent in Iran, drug smuggler, zombie, proconsul in Panama, and bartender in Kuwait.

If the short story is allowed to stand as the exemplar of a form that requires taut, focused writing and precise dialogue, why not extend the form to include the comic?

"Okay, Springfield, if you aren’t the heat, who are you?”

"I’m from the National Rifle Association, Mr. Duke! And I was going to make you an offer…”

"The N.R.A.? Now, wait a minute, perhaps I was being a little hasty…”
"You…you know our work?”

"Know it? Hell, I’ve supported it for years! These are repressive times, Mr. Springfield!”

"And how! Even as we speak, new gun laws are being prepared by liberals and their ilk!”

"What? Liberals? Their ilk? You’ve seen them?”

"The erosion of freedom is not a pretty sight, Mr. Duke.”

And that’s merely one strip from nearly two hundred pages of three strips apiece. Setting, action, snappy dialogue. As with most of "Doonesbury” the pictures are almost incidental. A nifty five-inch figure complete with martini glass and Uzi comes bubble-packed with the book.

Where would Hunter S. Thompson would be today if it weren’t for Uncle Duke keeping his persona in the public eye on the editorial pages of hundreds of newspapers? Would he be some lonely guy on a ramshackle farm in Colorado, waiting for the royalty checks from Curse of Lono to arrive? In a perfect world, Duke would have been an unplanned collaboration between Thompson and Trudeau, with the fantasy and the fact mirroring the other. What do you do though, when the cartoon shows more life than the reality?

—Darrel A. Plant

And yes, I’ve still got both books.

Will Eisner is “The Spirit”

I spent a lot of my young adulthood around bookstores; the kind of bookstores that sold comic books and games as well as books. It was the flowering of the graphic novel, which has remained a staple of the comic industry to this day, and one of its heros was Will Eisner, whose comic “The Spirit” was seen as the touchstone of quality for storytelling and style.

According to CNN, Mr. Eisner is dead at 87, after complications from heart bypass surgery.

The National Geographic Gets Real

The National Geographic magazine has, in recent years, run its share of articles that I personally felt were pretty fluffy. Apart from articles on big cats (a kind of fluffy I enjoy), there have been many that were little more than pictorals, often with some serious fiction author expressing their thoughts in a sincere manner. Nonetheless, I’ve remained a subscriber

However, in the past three months National Geographic has run two cover articles that make up for anything that may have struck anyone as silly.

First, remember that National Geographic (the primary magazine of the Society) has an incredible circulation, somewhere around 6,000,000 copies each month in the U.S. (according to the best figures I can find), making it one of the most widely-distributed magazines in the country. They’re in homes, libraries, and schools across the nation.

In September, the cover story was “Global Warming: Bulletins from a Warmer World.” Editor Bill Allen started his letter to readers with this:

After a decade as Editor in Chief, I have a pretty good idea which articles will provoke a lot of angry letters. Whenever we publish stories that challenge widely held beliefs, some readers get mad, and they write to let us know.

Well, we’re about to do it again. We’re devoting 74 pages of this issue to a three-part series on global climate change, and I’d be willing to bet that we’ll get letters from readers who don’t believe global climate change is real, and that humans contribute to the problem. Some readers will even terminate their memberships.

The cover of November’s issue contains the provocative question: “Was Darwin Wrong?”. Eager creationist readers who flip through to page 4 will find an unequivocal answer: “No. The evidence for Evolution is overwhelming.”

Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life’s work of Charles Darwin, is a theory. It’s a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth’s living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it’s “just” a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is “just” a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct, involving electrons, which are tiny units of charged mass that no one has ever seen. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That’s what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. They embrace such an explanation confidently but provisionally—taking it as their best available view of reality, at least until some severely conflicting data or some better explanation might come along.

The rest of us generally agree. We plug our televisions into little wall sockets, measure a year by the length of Earth’s orbit, and in many other ways live our lives based on the trusted reality of those theories.

It’s more than likely that you’re familiar with National Geographic from your youth, if you’re not still a subscriber. In either case, it is one mass-media outlet that is willing to unapologetically state scientific fact to its readers. They deserve your support. Write a letter. Buy a copy on the newsstand (they do that now), or—better yet—subscribe. If you already subscribe, get someone a holiday gift subscription; it’s all of $19 for a year. You get beautiful pictures, some fuzzy kitty stuff, and a dose of the truth.

St. Crispin’s Day

And Crispine Crispian shall ne’re goe by,
From this day to the ending of the World,
But we in it shall be remembred;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers:
For he to day that sheds his blood with me,
Shall be my brother: be he ne’re so vile,
This day shall gentle his Condition.
And Gentlemen in England, now a bed,
Shall thinke themselues accurst they were not here;
And hold their Manhoods cheape, whiles any speakes,
That fought with vs vpon Saint Crispines day.

    Henry V, William Shakespeare

Law & Order Fans: Ripped From “The Family”

From Kitty Kelley’s The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, comes this tale of of long ago, when George Bush attended Andover prep school. Apart from the outsized proportion of female murderers on Law & Order — something I’ve found incredibly odd for years — here’s another reason not to watch any of the 20-odd or whatever Law & Order franchises.

Fistfights were kept to a minimum, despite the high level of teenage testosterone. “It must have been all of those hard-time athletics, plus we were convinced they put saltpeter in our food,” said Torbert Macdonald [son of a Massachussets congressman who was a good friend of President Kennedy]. “I only remember one incident of violence and that was when we got the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. I was devastated because I knew what it would do to my father. Everyone was stunned. The only guy who was insensitive and started taunting me was Dick Wolf. He never got his degree from Andover, but he managed to become a success as the executive producer of Law and Order on NBC-TV. He was a real shithead — nasty and mean — and I remember smashing my arm into his big fat gut when he started in about Kennedy minutes after the assassination.”

A Roll of the Dice

I haven’t finished it yet, but Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland is, for me at least, both a look back at my own past and a glimpse into what might have been, given a lot of luck and determination.

The book puts the culture of electronic gamers into perspective, drawing its origins out of the Dungeons & Dragons backgrounds of people like Ultima creator Richard Garriott and the developers of Doom and Quake.

Every time I read something about this particular subject, I’m reminded of just how many contacts I had with a number of the truly mythic personalities of the field, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when — if I’d had more confidence — I might have been able to get into the ground level of the electronic gaming field. Ah well.

I’ll have to see how the story turns out.

Abraham Lincoln: Republican Hipster

In honor of John Kerry’s Cooper Union speech today, here’s a completely off-topic quote from Abraham Lincoln’s May 1860 address there that shows how far back one element of speech goes. In it, he’s addressing the threat of Southern states to secede if an anti-slavery Republican is elected. (As quoted in “The Greatest Republican” by James M. McPherson, from The New York Review of Books, August 12, 2004.)

But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! [Laughter] That is cool. [Great laughter] A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!” [Continued laughter]

Not that I’m advocating voting Republican this year. Unless Lincoln’s running.

Uneasy About Lies?

You’d think that on Hawthorne Boulevard — oft-cited as one of the most liberal neighborhoods in Portland — just about any place that sold books would have jumped on the chance to peddle a few copies of Al Franken’s best-selling Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Oddly enough, it took the Hawthorne Fred Meyer over a month to put any on display. Their bestseller book table has had books by conservatives Bernard Goldberg, Dinesh D’Souza, and Michael Savage. This month, Bill O’Reilly’s latest, which was released two weeks after Franken’s, made it onto Freddy’s mixed fiction/non-fiction bestseller rack, despite its ranking behind Franken’s book on both the "New York Times" and "Publisher’s Weekly" non-fiction rankings earlier in October (the release of Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country? knocked Franken’s book out of the top position in this week’s NYT hardcover non-fiction list [2 Nov 03]; both Moore and Franken are ahead of O’Reilly in PW‘s ranking [24 Oct 03]). Neither Franken’s or Moore’s books are on Freddy’s October bestseller list.