What is Gonzo?

There are numerous interpretations of Gonzo, but I would describe it in the simplest of terms: The writing style of Hunter S. Thompson from 1970 onwards. It was a one-man literary genre defined by various qualities, including:

  • Subjectivity
  • Immediacy (using notes, transcripts, etc)
  • A blend of fact and fiction
  • Dark comedy
  • A peculiar lexis (see examples below)
  • Some kind of sidekick figure
  • Hyperbole and/or fantasy
  • Drug use
  • Violence
  • Digressions
  • Conspiratorial tone

Note: Some of these were more prominent than others but a typical piece of Gonzo writing featured most, if not all, of them.

By 1969, Thompson’s style was largely formed but it was only at the Kentucky Derby in 1970 that he put the final piece in place: his notes. That came about because Thompson, whose struggles with writer’s block would continue to worsen, was unable to write his story and resorted to tearing out pages of a notebook and sending them off to his editor. The editor, Warren Hinckle, felt these improved the story and when it was published, Thompson’s friend, Bill Cardoso, called it “totally Gonzo.”

In High White Notes, I track the creation of Gonzo throughout Thompson’s life and work. As a child, he was highly creative and loved inventing weird pranks, so comedy and satire were among the first elements to enter his writing style. He also learned to put himself into the text early on, partially due to his immense ego and partially as a means of emulating his hero, Ernest Hemingway. A desire to write fiction like Hemingway and other influences (F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.P. Donleavy, etc) also pushed him to blend fact and fiction, though this also served political purposes by f the late sixties. His Gonzo lexis (including words like swine, atavistic, doomed, etc) came as he periodically latched on to things he read. You can see the origin of all that in High White Notes. The sidekick element came late and really manifested itself with Ralph Steadman, who would later be replaced by Oscar Zeta Acosta and others, allowing Thompson an easy literary device for explaining his ideas and presenting his own image (often as his alter ego, Raoul Duke). Then, finally, came the notes in 1970.

Thompson quickly recognised that Gonzo was his personal brand. One can in fact view the Kentucky Derby article as a template for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and he basically re-used it for numerous other stories, such as “The Great Shark Hunt.” By the late seventies, he was eager to shake this image, but couldn’t, and continued to trot out the Gonzo style for the remainder of his life. Unfortunately, it became quite stale and predictable. We can thus divide Thompson’s literary life accordingly:

  • 1956 to 1970 – the development of Gonzo
  • 1970 to 1973 – the Gonzo heyday
  • 1973 to 2005 – Gonzo grows stale

I am quite critical of Thompson’s later work, which includes almost everything post-1972 presidential reporting, but I believe that the work he produced prior to that point (which, not coincidentally, was when he discovered cocaine) was of such innovative genius that he ought to be regarded as one of the great American writers not just of his era but of the 20th century.

Can Anyone Else Be Gonzo?

This question is open and contentious, but it is my opinion that no one other than Hunter S. Thompson could truly be a Gonzo writer. Thompson’s style was so specific to him– to his lifestyle, his character, his situation – that anyone who attempts to be Gonzo is merely imitating him. It truly was a one-man genre.

These days, you often see people talking about Gonzo writing by others, as well as Gonzo porn and various other enterprises, but honestly I would say that the connection is tenuous. It is like claiming to be part of the Beat or Lost Generations. The time has passed. Take inspiration from those people and move on to create something new. Thompson was influenced by both those movements but managed to form his own.