Gonzo: The Real, the Surreal, and Hunter S. Thompson

Brit Mandelo

It’s hard to forget the cadence of the opening paragraphs of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream: the beat of words like a pulse, the vivid slide of imagery from the attorney pouring beer on his bare chest “to facilitate the tanning process” (1) sideways to a sky full of shrieking bats. Of course, the bats—and their reality, or lack thereof—are the initial clue that tells the reader of this strange text they aren’t on steady ground any longer. Or, that might have been the illustrations, which are the true opener to the text, scrawled across the title page in Ralph Steadman’s unmistakable hand. Thompson’s defining works are so odd that after the first recognizable piece of the stuff was published—”The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”—a new name had to be coined to talk about what it was that he was doing: gonzo journalism. Gonzo is weird and extreme, not true but also not fiction, neither real nor surreal but an amalgamation of both. In it, the speculative, the hallucinatory, and the imaginary share equally weighted space with fact-checked traditional journalism. Gonzo is a perfect example of what it means to be interstitial, in terms of both genre and execution.

Whereas commonly noted sites of interstitial exploration like magical realism and fabulism play with reality in a textual world that is still patently fictional, and in doing so contravene genre expectations, gonzo journalism goes further and pushes generic boundaries harder. A hybrid of fiction, fact, and exaggeration, generally paired with Steadman’s maniacal illustrations, it contradicts expectations of what journalism is allowed to do, what a story is made of, and where the lines are drawn between fiction and nonfiction, text and art. Gonzo crosses lines—the lines of genre and the lines of reality.

That first piece of gonzo, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” was an accident, late on its deadline and the result of Thompson and Ralph Steadman going on a bender instead of covering the horse-race. Thompson had written something during that time, but it certainly wasn’t on the results of the race. His first wife, Sandy, recalls in a biography of Thompson: “It was past deadline, and the editors of Scanlan’s were trying to get the Kentucky Derby piece from him, and he said ‘I can’t send it to you; it’s gibberish.’ They said, ‘Send it anyway.’ … And what do you know—they called and they said it was great.” (125)  The piece opens with Thompson arriving in Louisville—his hometown, and mine—as the Derby madness is escalating, unable to get his press credentials, his rental car, or find the artist Scanlan’s was supposed to have sent him from Britain, Ralph Steadman. If the piece had continued in the vein of the comedy of errors, or a caper, it wouldn’t have been anything special–but it didn’t. Instead, when Thompson finds Steadman amongst the crowd of the Derby press box, they begin to drink, and don’t stop for the next several days. The narrative veers wildly off track:

Beyond drink and lack of sleep, our only real problem at that point was the question of access to the clubhouse. Finally we decided to go ahead and steal two passes, if necessary, rather than miss that part of the action. 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. (33)

The rest of the story is pulled from the notes he claims to have scribbled throughout the weekend in a battered, whiskey-stained notebook: sporadic flashes of a family dinner that Ralph ruins by drawing (and Hunter helps him ruin by macing a waiter), a bad trip to a bar, a crazed rush around the Derby itself attempting to capture a physical impression of the “whiskey gentry,” and finally Hunter dropping Ralph off at the airport a scrambled, shirtless mess. The horse-race bears only the smallest import on the proceedings, the actual assignment for the article even less. Thompson, driven on by Steadman’s participatory madness and art, had written a story about them losing their minds instead of anyone in the crowds.

From the first gonzo was an accident, an experiment gone wrong that, somehow, hit the readers’ buttons just right. Thompson stumbled onto gonzo, which seems poetically appropriate when discussing a form of interstitial writing; it was an extreme place, an in-between place, that he found in the Scanlan’s essay. Without the chance combination of factors—Ralph Steadman and his art being one of the largest of those—it would never have happened at all. After the success of that piece, as William Kennedy says in the aforementioned biography, “…he found a way to turn himself into this singular first-person itinerant journalist who was interesting no matter what he wrote about. He put himself into the picture and he became the story.” (127)

Focusing on the journalist as the story, the journalist as a character, was a slide sideways from traditional forms induced by the frame of gonzo as Thompson discovered it in the Derby essay. The piece often considered the highest point of gonzo, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, operates at a fictional remove in a similar way. The lead character is not “Hunter Thompson” but his alter ego, “Raoul Duke.” Disregard as reader the fact that Hunter and Raoul are the same person; the change of the name makes him a character in his own story, a fictional construction that can be played with and exaggerated. It makes him not himself, or more fully himself—again, it is an in-between space in the story. It absolves responsibility while at the same time winking slyly at the reader as if to say, “well, what will you believe, then, if I am not really me? And, it’s not my fault if I am.” This reversal and masking within character is a challenge to traditional ideas of journalism and what makes a piece of writing “nonfiction,” even more so than the first-person narrative of the Derby story.

At the same time, there is a core of truth-telling and reality to these surreal narratives. The examination in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas of what Thompson perceived to be the death of the movements of the sixties is breathtakingly real.

There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… …Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. …We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. (68)

Without the reality behind the surreal wildness, gonzo would not be. It is not simply a matter of rambling on, but of capturing truth with untruth and an emotional reality with a staggering set of exaggerations.

It is also impossible to discuss the workings of gonzo, especially in reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, without an acknowledgement of the other slide performed by the text in reference to reality: the prolonged and intense usage by the characters/the journalist of hallucinogenic drugs as a central part of the narrative. In much the same way as the removal of journalist into character facilitates the fictionalization, the surrealism, of the narrative, the introduction of a reality-altering frame doubles the effect. The already-blurred boundaries of truth and fiction, of real and unreal, of speculative and concrete, further break down with the intentional fracturing of perception on the part of the characters—and to a great extent the reader, as the reader sees only what Duke/Thompson tells them.

Steadman’s illustrations of the hallucinations, too, further blend the lines of reality and are yet one more thing that renders Thompson’s gonzo journalism interstitial. The art is necessary to the text; it is as much part of it as the words on the page. However, these stories are not comics and the books are not graphic novels. They’re journalism—of a sort—that simply must include visuals, in part to explicate the things Thompson/Duke is trying to explain, and in part because they are simply intrinsic to gonzo and have been from the first instance. As if the play with genre and the sliding between reality and surreality wasn’t interstitial enough, gonzo also blurs the lines between illustrated art and written word. It’s an amalgamation in every way; it is many things, it is not many things, but in the end it exists outside of categorization.

This blending together of genres at the most basic level, fiction and nonfiction, text and art, creates a sensation of unease and adventure that brings Thompson’s work to life—and also makes it quintessentially interstitial, from its very marrow outwards. Interstitiality is a quality present in certain works that defy easy categorization as “this” or “that;” it is not simply a lack of classification but an ability to transcend classification and create a new potentiality in doing so. In this mixed classification, this impossibility of classification, the work extends its potentiality into a new frame of reference. Thompson’s particular blurring and blending of so many possibilities into one text created a categorization all its own in the form of gonzo journalism.

The interstitial—the work of Thompson, or of others who can wear the label—often lives in a cultural moment that is impossible to erase, a moment of experimentation that blew a set of doors wide open. Interstitial works pull the tide of creativity and provide a new channel for it to flow down. Gonzo did not end with Thompson’s death; it has informed science-fictional works in comics (Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan) as well as theatrical performance in films (Johnny Depp’s adoption of his long-time friend’s mannerisms to become him on the silver screen), and it has certainly left its cultural mark on American journalism and letters. As is often the case with interstitial works, it’s just too strange to forget.



Seymour, Corey, Jann S. Wenner and Johnny Depp. Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Little Brown, 2007.

Thompson, Hunter S. and Ralph Steadman. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. New York: Vintage, 1998.

Thompson, Hunter S. “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” The Great Shark Hunt: Gonzo Papers, Volume 1 – Strange Tales from a Strange Time. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979, 2003.

BritMandelophotoBrit Mandelo is the senior fiction editor for Strange Horizons Magazine and has two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling. Her other work—fiction, nonfiction, poetry; she wears a lot of hats—has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.