Book Reviews

High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism by David S. Wills

What Da Cover Says: High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism aims to provide the first in-depth analysis of the writings of Hunter S. Thompson, one of the most misunderstood authors of the 20th century. His Gonzo journalism was an odd fusion of fact and fiction that garnered widespread adoration but for all the wrong reasons.

In this book, David S. Wills (author of books on William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg) traces the author’s life from birth to death, exploring how Thompson developed an entirely unique literary voice and why he used such odd techniques to craft a form of prose that defied categorisation. This book not only explores Thompson’s meteoric rise to literary superstardom, but also charts the startling decline in the quality of his work that came after his 1972 foray into political reporting.

What I Says: I consider myself a big fan of Hunter S. Thompson…even though I have only read 3 of his books (Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diaries) and only started reading him after he had died, this biography has shown me I have have only touched the surface with Thompson’s writing. There have been many books written about Thompson so what makes this book special? Thompson was the master of blending fact and fiction and it is nigh on impossible to unravel the truth from Thompson’s books, his letters, interviews and audio recordings, Wills has done an incredible job of trawling through all that work to separate fact from fiction and has created this biography that is one of the most interesting I’ve read. Sure he might have had to make assumptions here and there but that has to be expected, there is no real way to get to the truth, especially as in the end it’s not obvious as to whether Thompson himself was sure of the facts.

One thing that is obvious from this book is just how tragic Thompson’s life was, trapped inside a persona that he had created and unable to find a way out. The guy was most definitely a genius, some of his insults (especially those towards Nixon) are some of the funniest you’ll ever read and it’s amazing that you imagine Gonzo journalism as a huge movement but it was just the one guy, it was such a crazy concept that nobody was able to imitate and ultimately Thompson was unable to find his way out. Wills shares with the reader quotes from those closest to him and it’s very moving to see just what they did for him to help him focus on his writing, the quote at the beginning of the last chapter by Sandy Thompson was shocking, it really puts things into perspective about what Thompson was going through. Reading of his decline in these pages was quite depressing but Wills has handled it sensitively.

What makes a good biography? In my opinion it needs to be of somebody of interest, not some recent “celebrity”, the number of quotes from other sources needs to be kept down, the biographer needs to write things as if the object of the book is a character, any statements they make need to be backed up with understandable reasoning and finally it needs to leave you in awe and wanting to explore the person more. For me this book has ticked all the boxes, I have learnt a huge amount, the research has been fantastic, so well written that now and then I found myself all caught up in the events in Thompson’s life and finally it has made me want to re-read the three books I’ve read and to also read the poor quality work that Thompson wrote. If you want to know more about the myth that is Hunter S. Thompson then this is a great place to start, it ain’t just for the fanboys.

Massive thanks to David S. Wills for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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