As I think back to the time when I first came across Hunter S. Thompson’s “Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, my mind goes blank. I’m uncertain as to where I was or how old I was or even the circumstances that led up to that strange and significant moment of my life. It might be due to the fact that between that moment and now I have read the piece well over a thousand times. Or, it might be because I was simply too young at the time and too blown away by what I was experiencing at the time. Whatever the reason, nothing can diminish my absolute affection and respect for Hunter S. Thompson and the poor English artist that he dragged along for the ride. The artists name was Ralph Steadman and this was how Hunter first described his encounter with him at the race:
[Steadman was] a bearded young Englishman wearing a tweed coat and RAF sunglasses. There was nothing particularly odd about him. No facial veins or clumps of bristly warts. I told him about the motel woman’s description and he seemed puzzled. “Don’t let it bother you,” I said. “Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place. You’re lucky that mental defective at the motel didn’t jerk a pistol out of the cash register and blow a big hole in you.” I laughed, but he looked worried. “Just pretend you’re visiting a huge outdoor loony bin,” I said. “If the inmates get out of control we’ll soak them down with Mace.”
Published first in 1970 in Scanlan’s Monthly, a fairly unknown publication out of San Francisco that is now no longer in existence, Hunter’s Kentucky Derby piece was, arguably, one of the first pieces of the influential New Journalism movement. On top of that, this was the article that put Hunter on the map and eventually led to his subsequent assignments with Rolling Stone magazine. But, aside from the article’s impact on the New Journalism front, it’s also important to recognize the unique voice and perspective that Hunter brings to his works. While so many hard news outlets and stories at the time emphasized objectivity and flat language, Hunter – among others like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, George Orwell and H.L. Mencken – takes the reader on an eccentric and incredibly descriptive journey through time and space and, in Hunter’s case, a briefcase full of uppers, downers and whatever’s in between.
For me, Hunter opens up a world of possibilities, one that’s filled with color and truth and beauty and evil and morality and vibrant characters all in one. I remember reading an interview with Hunter where he confessed that in his earlier years, as he was developing his voice and his method, he would type the entire text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby over and over on his typewriter. I recently read the Great Gatsby. And while there are incredible similarities between the two there is a distinct and distinguishable tone to Hunter’s work. He speaks in a colorful and engaging subjective truth. With Hunter, it’s as if he freely admits to his own inadequacies but then mocks and profiles those people who pretend to be someone in spite of them being something and someone completely different.
As an aspiring writer and as an inspiring journalist I think that Hunter’s methods of reporting were always misunderstood and underappreciated. For anybody who was unfamiliar with his style and method, he was commonly seen as an eccentric and biased journalist who happened to know how to write. But as I mentioned before, there was much more to him as a reporter. To understand the importance of the situation and the circumstances that culminate in the midst of an event you have to interpret it for what it is. This is how Hunter described his and Ralph’s search for the right kind of face for the Kentucky Derby crowd:
He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn’t seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry — a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient–to the parents–than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and in their own ways.
I suppose that a viable critique of Hunter’s work is that he does have a tendency to be so subjective and dramatic that it becomes hard to differentiate between the narrative and the facts. And, from a journalistic standpoint, this might in fact hold a bit of weight when we consider how Hunter’s work is interpreted. It’s not hard news. But Hunter never thought of himself as a hard news beat reporter. He was greatly influenced by the literary heavyweights. He loved F. Scott Fitzgerald and he adored J.P. Donleavy. And he incorporated that language into his process of telling news. We too often read the paper and listen to the radio and watch the T.V. with a certain degree of passivity. And the problem, I think, is that we lack a connection to what is transpiring in front of us. We fail to put ourselves in the shoes of other people and too often think from the comfort of our own couches. This is what separates us from the “news” and I think this is something that Hunter understood. He takes us there and he puts us in his shoes as he navigates the reader through the rolling and sometimes steep hills of the story.