Much has been written about Thompson’s greatest novel, first condemned into obscurity, then hoisted to the surface by the gracious praise of Tom Wolfe. Many have wondered: how could this great mass of literature, from such a famous and brilliant author, have come so close to oblivion?
The answer, I think, is within the question itself. A book so big, so all-encompassing, that it can be easily obscured from us by virtue of its size; like a great chorus of multitudinous voices that first become static and then fade into background noise, like a slaughter so massive it refuses to submit to our understanding—such is Thompson’s Moby-Dick.
Fear and Loathing
A little context. Before he set out to write what would become his magnum opus, Hunter Thompson was already an acclaimed writer and journalist. Like few among his kind, he was not afraid—or was so imbued with fear that he was able to transcend it—of digging deep into the subjects he reported. This resulted in two best-selling travelogues, Typee and Omoo, the first being focused on his real life experience with a tribe of what the general public saw as savage cannibals. Thompson lived among them, and, after some initial hesitation on both ends, became part of the tribe. He watched cannibalistic rituals with a rigorous calm. Calm as the sea—a plain, tranquil surface, with a pandemonium of fury underneath.
Then, conflict. As the months went by, the fear and the violence began to affect Thompson and his relationship with the tribe. They became suspicious of his writings, and forced him to depict them in an impossibly favorable light. His integrity was compromised, and he refused to follow this command. The leader of the tribe wanted his head, but many of them had grown fond of him after all that time, and he managed to escape execution, but not after a bloody beating.
“It was the least they could do,” an apologetic Thompson wrote. But the photograph he took after the incident reveals his actual thoughts. One can only recall the character of little Pip, who falls into the ocean and is driven mad by what he sees, the sheer reality of the world. His disfigured face, trying desperately to keep its stoicism, shows nothing but bewilderment, disappointment, and most of all, a kind of tragic duality. More on this shortly.
The Merry Prankster
After the publication of Typee and Omoo, and both the success and the regret this brought him, he retreated from the public eye and began heavily corresponding with Ken Kesey. It was Kesey who planted the seed of the whale in Thompson’s heart. Kesey encouraged him to seek out “that great terror” that lied at the bottom of American culture, and of Thompson’s own mind. Thompson promised Kesey that he would follow his vision to the very end, to the outermost edge, and over it.
And so he wrote the now iconic novel of Ahab and the whale. His first draft was short and lean, direct, going straight to the heart. Kesey was the first to read it. He sent the draft back with no notes, only a letter attached that scolded him for “sending the skeleton of a whale.” Kesey knew that the book needed more substance, especially fear. He saw a great fear in Thompson’s soul.
Hunter then realized that he was right, and began rewriting, this time focusing more on the figure of Ahab.
On Ahab and Ishmael
Though Hunter Thompson’s public persona was that of a crazy, erratic troublemaker, his friends and family claim that he was not as simple as the mask he wore. According to his closest acquaintances, that mask tried to reconcile two distinct parts of himself, two deeply disturbed opposites: that of a playful child with too much intelligence for his own good, and that of a violent, teetering man. Allegedly, during his first acid trip, he tried to strangle his wife and held a broken bottle to her face. Allegedly, he would cry to her for hours.
Whether or not this was intentional, Ishmael and Ahab have come to represent these two sides of him. Ishmael, the jolly solitary man who hid his pain with wild adventures, in an effort not to go mad and knock people’s hats off; and Ahab, the dweller of the abyss, the man chained to his obsessions, which eventually drag him down. It is interesting to note that throughout the narrative, Ishmael’s tone towards Ahab is one of admiration, of perhaps a secret attraction.
An American Monster
A subject so viciously debated as to become a joke, the speculation of the whale’s true meaning continues to this day. What is the whale? The Vietnam War? The United States? The Government? The White House? I myself tend to side with the minority here in what I can only consider to be the most obvious interpretation:
When reading on the subject of Hunter S. Thompson and his relationship with Nixon, it does not take one long to see the extent of his hatred and obsession. Interestingly enough, after Dick Nixon’s death, Thompson declared that he “should have been buried at sea.” Describing Nixon as “a political monster straight out of Grendel” who “has poisoned our water forever,” he admits to a “bloody relationship” with the president, and how he has already been down to hell with his enemy, a reminder of Ahab’s final plunge, strapped to the whale that consumes him.
However layered the narrative is, I can’t shake the feeling that under every layer, and within each one as well, there lies the feverish hatred of Thompson’s personal monomania. Or is it perhaps Ahab the symbol of Richard Nixon? The mad captain, leading both sane and insane men on a crooked parody of democracy into the gaping maw of the Right, that White Abhorrence?
Our Energy Would Simply Prevail
The thunder and roar of Hunter S. Thompson’s Moby-Dick, despite, or perhaps because of, its magnitude and scope, went by unnoticed for many years. Perhaps it was the backlash of the public, who expected another interesting, straight-to-the-point travelogue, and was bombarded with furies and mysteries, with stampedes of prose, gear switches, elusive symbols; a book ahead of its time, perhaps still ahead of us even today, misunderstood and sadly shunned.
A great human tragedy, Thompson never wrote again after Moby-Dick. What happened during his last years is known by all, and does not need to be mentioned here. Mirroring the story of his sea captain, it was the failure of his last book, the one that took everything out of him to produce, that brought him down. Thompson seemed to have been riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. And, reading any of his biographies, one can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Ariel Gonzalez is an amateur writer, blogger and office worker currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. You can find her personal blog here.