On Saturday we celebrated the Kentucky Derby. And since we always familiarize ourselves with the relevant literature before we do anything (ask us about our road trip to the South, which involved a stack of William Faulkner and 12 audio CDs of Mark Twain), this weekend was the perfect time to re-read a seminal work of Gonzo journalism: Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 article for Scanlon’s Monthly, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”
Has anyone else noticed how nothing ever happens in Gonzo journalism? All the crazed, drug-addled stuff that you remember is in the author’s imagination. Thompson (who, by the way, is the original six-fingered man) likes to imagine all this crazy shit going down, and he’s marvelous at explaining what “total chaos” will look like, if it ever happens. But it never does.
“Well…maybe I shouldn’t be telling you…” I shrugged. “But hell, everybody else seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They’ve warned us–all the press and photographers–to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting…”
“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.”
“We’ll just have to be careful not to step on anybody’s stomach and start a fight.” I shrugged. “Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up.”
On the way to the press box elevator, just inside the clubhouse, we came on a row of soldiers all carrying long white riot sticks. About two platoons, with helmets. A man walking next to us said they were waiting for the governor and his party. Steadman eyed them nervously. “Why do they have those clubs?” “Black Panthers,” I said
At a certain point you start to wonder if he can really be as wasted as he claims, since he’s actually taking notes.
This was the last coherent decision we were able to make for the next forty-eight hours. From that point on–almost from the very moment we started out to the track–we lost all control of events and spent the rest of the weekend churning around in a sea of drunken horrors. My notes and recollections from Derby Day are somewhat scrambled. But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less what happened. The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story.
Sure, Hunter. You were totally gone.
But the angels of chaos never came down, did they?
The Derby, the actual race, was scheduled for late afternoon, and as the magic hour approached I suggested to Steadman that we should probably spend some time in the infield, that boiling sea of people across the track from the clubhouse. He seemed a little nervous about it, but since none of the awful things I’d warned him about had happened so far–no race riots, firestorms or savage drunken attacks–he shrugged and said, “Right, let’s do it.”
The next day’s Courier told of violence in the parking lot; people were punched and trampled, pockets were picked, children lost, bottles hurled. But we missed all this, having retired to the press box for a bit of post-race drinking.
No blows were struck, but the emotional effects were massive.
On some level the whole point is that the mindfuck is taking place in Thompson’s head.
My eyes had finally opened enough for me to focus on the mirror across the room and I was stunned at the shock of recognition. For a confused instant I thought that Ralph had brought somebody with him–a model for that one special face we’d been looking for. There he was, by God–a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature…like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for–and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible…
We’re not ragging on Hunter S. Thompson. But it seems like his biggest strength as a writer was an ability to describe what DIDN’T happen, as opposed to what did. So maybe he should fire up that big red Cadillac land shark of his, and drive over to the fiction shelf.
1. Shout-out to Ben, Jay, and Jonathan for hosting the Kentucky Derby thing.
2. Scanlon’s Monthly, in case you’re wondering, was a flash-in-the-pan magazine. But it was edited by a forgotten hero of ours named Warren Hinckle. Just keep that in the back of your mind: one of these days we’ll tell you about Warren Hinckle, how he’s a straight man from San Francisco who helped to save the gay rights movement, and why he wears a black eye patch.