The Proud Highway
THE COVER PHOTO on this fat book of early correspondence by the founder of "gonzo journalism" shows our anti-hero kneeling by the side of the road, adorned with the trademark sunglasses and cigarette that later became the props for Doonesbury's HST imitator Raoul Duke. Above and below the picture, the subtitles blare, "The Fear and Loathing Letters, Volume 1," and "Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman." But the charm and credibility of Proud Highway comes from the way Thompson's nascent literary genius is so inextricably bound up in earnest banality. Written from 1955 to 1967, when Thompson was between the ages of 18 and 30, the letters themselves evolve like an emerging snapshot that stops developing while the image is crude but immediately recognizable. Thus, as with most books of this sort, Proud Highway will be an educational and entertaining read for die-hard Thompson fans and a bore for pretty much everyone else.
In a reversal of what would happen in Thompson's famous later life, his 20s were more outrageous in person than they were on the page. Brimming with piss and vinegar in the age of Eisenhower, he was fired for irreverence and insubordination from more than one publication, but had not yet harnessed the ability to brag and hyperbolize about his rebelliousness in a compelling manner. There are glimmers of the future gonzo in the "lunatic letter" Thompson wrote to get creditors off his back, but much of his raucous early prose feels transparent or quaint, especially when juxtaposed with more honest letters of tortured self-examination, and when leavened with more commonplace missives such as mash notes to girlfriends, queries for story assignments, and requests to his mother for money or clothing. As a freelance sportswriter and aspiring novelist, Thompson was discovering that even being legitimately gonzo didn't get you paid or laid in the '50s and early '60s.
But the civil rights movement and Vietnam arrived in sync with Thompson's growing maturity as a writer, providing his riveting intelligence and distaste for authority with some literary purchase. Thompson had a wonderful habit of firing off diatribes to President Johnson about the war, of trying to chat up a correspondence with writers he admired, and of befriending folks who would later become renowned in their own right, such as former CBS reporter Charles Kuralt. Through it all, his rapier wit and prescient instincts are burgeoning in his prose. Writing his friend Paul Semonin from California in 1965, he says, "This is the dead end of America and the next five years will prove it... Ronald Reagan is the prototype of the new mythological American, a grinning whore who will probably someday be President." During the last 200 pages of Proud Highway, Thompson is in the midst of negotiating and then writing a series of assignments on the Hell's Angels, a brilliant piece of nonfiction reportage and insight that would be his first full-length book and serve as a platform upon which to launch the seminal gonzo manifesto, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It seems increasingly likely that his crazed persona will haunt his prose for the rest of his life, making the memory of the semicrazed person writing these letters all the more valuable.