Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 29, 2017

Gonzo Journalism and the Black Shadow

Nothing is more dangerous than literature.

You’re all readers, so I don’t have to provide a list. You can think of books that your parents or teachers considered dangerous (and you were determined to read them for that reason, if for no other). There are books that are dangerous because they’re full of wrongheaded or flawed ideas, or ones that aren’t inherently dangerous until people with misguided or defective reasoning embrace them. Some books contain unpopular or annoying truth which makes them threatening to some elements of society, or to a particular culture, religion or political ideology.

As long as books have existed, some have been declared “unsafe.”

Ah, the dangerous books I’ve read: Catcher in the Rye (prohibited for a time at my high school, so of course I read it immediately), Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Some books are perfectly acceptable, ipso facto, but can be dangerous if embraced by naive or credulous readers. It’s okay, for example, to get a kick out of reading about ol’ Howard Roark’s exploits in The Fountainhead. It’s another matter entirely to adopt a worldview in which some Randian, ubermenschian persona becomes one’s role model.

Having a book banned or restricted from publication or distribution does attract publicity.

Breaking rules, crossing boundaries — intentionally creating a “dangerous book” —is one pathway to garnering attention and — in the final analysis — sales. Engaging in hyperbole gets one noticed, if not respected. William Randolph Hearst allegedly said, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” His business was selling newspapers, not truth. If you don’t think that philosophy pays dividends, go visit Hearst Castle.

In the 1960s and ’70s, a group of writers endorsed a reportorial approach called “New Journalism.” New Journalists rejected traditional objectivity in which the reporter was an anonymous observer, providing only objective facts to the greatest degree possible. They strove, instead, to determine not mere fact but “truth,” with the differentiating judgments provided by an incisive and observant reporter who applied his or her own interpretation of reality.

New Journalism appeared in the pages of magazines like Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Harper’s and Scanlon’s Monthly. Work from authors including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion sold a lot of magazines.

One of the most notable practitioners of New Journalism was Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s immoderate style generated a lot of attention for his subjects and himself. He wrote a number of memorable pieces of journalism, but the work that’s indelibly identified with his byline is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Fear and Loathing appeared first in Rolling Stone magazine, then became a book. It evolved from Thompson’s idiosyncratic and fevered approach to a series of overlapping journalistic assignments covering police corruption, a motorcycle race, a meeting of the  National District Attorneys Association and the illicit drug culture. Thompson’s personal participation in the drug culture became part of the narrative, suffusing the book with a distorted and hyperbolic tone reflecting the writer’s extreme form of New Journalism, which he called “Gonzo Journalism.”

Gonzo Journalism, itself, became — along with Thompson, himself — the subject of his book, taking New Journalism about as far as one could extend the genre. It also became a dangerous idea — at least to many critics of journalism — because those definitions of fact, truth and “reality” were blurred by their presentation (distortion?) through Thompson’s less-than-objective lens.

It’s also a hilariously entertaining book. Danger is fun when described by a maniacally madcap participant with a knack for knock-your-socks-off first-person narrative.

At the core of Thompson’s approach is his zest for exaggeration. Nothing is ordinary in his world. I was reminded of his penchant for making everything larger than life a few months ago in a museum, of all places.

In the portion of the book that derives from Thompson’s assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover the Mint 400 off-road motorcycle race (an assignment which he failed), Thompson described some of the motorcycles the competitors rode: Triumphs, BSAs, Indians — big monsters with lots of horsepower. But there was one titanic, legendary bike, inflated in Thompson’s description to mythic status. The fastest production motorcycle ever created: the Vincent Black Shadow.

He wrote,  “If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die.”

So extreme, so over-the-top was Thompson’s description of the Black Shadow that when I read Fear and Loathing more than 40 years ago, I thought he’d invented it. It was, I assumed, his Moby Dick or Frankenstein’s monster.

Last September I visited the Petersen Automobile Museum in Los Angeles (I wrote about it here). In one of the hallways connecting room after room of vintage and collector’s item vehicles was a display of motorcycles, including this one:

Vincent Black Shadow Brad Nixon 5222 (640x480)

A 1948 Vincent Black Shadow.

In truth, the jig was already up on my appreciation of the Black Shadow’s existence. I’d previously learned that the British firm Vincent Motorcycles had built something fewer than 1,700 Black Shadows. They were, in fact, ferociously fast, one having attained a speed of 185 miles per hour. Not mythic, but extreme, by any measure.

I’d also seen one other Black Shadow, a 1951 model, in the San Diego Automotive Museum

Vincent Black Shadow Brad Nixon 7111 (640x417)

Those are mere objects: cleverly-crafted assemblies of metal. Dangerous in the wrong circumstances, but in the hands of a master manipulator of language, behemoths of threat and peril. Adopting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a lifestyle template would be far more dangerous than riding a Vincent Black Shadow at any speed, but it’s certainly a thrilling ride. I was happy to stand there in that clean, air conditioned space and bridge the gulf between the inert metal of the Black Shadow and the sizzling psyche and charged hyperkineticism of Thompson’s writing. In an era of “alternate facts,” we might benefit from his apoplectic overreaction to the absurdity of our world.

Have a favorite “dangerous book?” Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Quotation by Hunter S. Thompson © Cycle World, March 1995. The Petersen Automotive Museum and San Diego Automotive Museum, respectively, own the rights to any use of the images.

 

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Responses

  1. While not written during the Gonzo era, “Ulysses” was the personal epitome of a dangerous book in my teenage years!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Let me try this on a real keyboard. I was glad to see you name Ulysses. I’d originally had a section in the post mentioning some famous books which had to move elsewhere to be published (France), Ulysses foremost among them. Had to trim, because I was running long. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You took us on quite a wild ride on a short road: from books to museums to motorcycles, to politics, and back again. So, excluding the Bible, what book would you rate as the most influential upon human history, and why?

        Like

  2. As Kellyanne seems to have inserted herself into your post, allow me to repeat what reputable journalists have said: alternative facts are nothing more than falsehoods. They have no basis in fact, but rather, are knowingly put forth to mislead and confuse the public and opponents of the speaker.

    The master of such speech was undoubtedly Adolf Hitler (not his real name, by the way — he even falsified his own name for political purposes). His “alt facts” went largely unchallenged inside and outside Nazi Germany, and we all know how that turned out.

    Therefore, just to be safe, I somewhat disagree with your hyperbolic first sentence (which I assume you may intend to be ironic rather than literal). True literature is not what is dangerous to a society. Political leaders who deliberately and routinely lie in order to bolster themselves and suppress the press and opponents are the greatest danger to a society. And there is a new Black Shadow in town, but it is not a motorcycle.

    Like

    • Ooh. Well. I stand by my thesis. Herr Hitler wrote a book. One of the most dangerous in the history of the written word.

      Like

      • Yes, Mein Kampf. But it was his oratory that changed world history, not the book, that few were aware of until the apocalypse had already been set in motion.

        Like

      • Hitler actually orated what become Mein Kamp.

        It was in a way “dictated” (ouch) to Rudolph Hess, through the process of Hitler walking around and giving what amounted to an “oration” on the topic at hand while, Hess typed furiously to keep up.

        In term of literary style (if you can call it that) the book is quite tortuous, It comprises mostly length and convoluted sentences which are hard to follow, and paragraphs which do not help much at all in sorting out specific thoughts/ideas.

        It is not a creditable work of literature in any meaningful sense, and sold abysmally when first published.

        Like

      • Thanks for the background, which I didn’t know. I’m going to stop commenting on a book I’ve never read.

        Like

  3. A wonderfully written post that stirred a lot of memories. I was a great fan of Thompson when he emerged on the scene. I wouldn’t live his life-style, and I couldn’t write like he did if I tried, but there certainly was something compelling about his books. My favorite Thompson quotation: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

    I was raised in a family where anything on the bookshelf was fair game, and educated by teachers who didn’t have a problem in the world allowing a second-grader to read sixth-grade books, so I tended toward bemusement when people hyperventilated over this or that. However, I do remember recommending Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic and Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers” to a group, and those who had a clue acted as though I’d just recommended cannibalism. Apparently that was a dangerous book: for them, at any rate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And Mr. Wolfe would still be glad to hear your tale. Nor do I think Mr. Thompson INTENDED us to adopt his lifestyle. Thank goodness. Thank you.

      Like


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