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Notes on a Novel

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Last week, the big circular wood table on Charlie Rose's PBS late-night talk show was occupied, as it often is, by writers: Vanity Fair's chief editor Graydon Carter, the two head honchos of the once hip Rolling Stone, and a handful of other popular wordsmiths.

The subject of their relaxed and laughter-laden discussion was the late Hunter S. Thompson. For years, I'd heard the name, but it meant nothing to me, until last year, when Library Journal sent me for review Gonzo, a new biography of the man written by his toothsome young widow.

So, I undertook a crash-course on Hunter S. Thompson, and found him to have been a weird proto-hippie, a shoot-from-the-hip fruitcake given over to firearms, drugs, booze, and eager teen females -- the image of Scott Fitzgerald kept popping to mind -- until at mid-life, figuring he'd done it all, he stuck the barrel of a shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. He seems to have been serious about only one thing. His own writing.

Speaking of Thompson's sometimes appealing, sometimes appalling pranks and personal habits, one of the panelists mentioned in passing that Thompson had once "typed out the whole Great Gatsby, just to see how it felt."

Well, if the panelists had been truck drivers or insurance salesmen, a great gale of guffaws would have swept the studio. But these were writers themselves, who intuitively understood and honored the gesture as a measure of the man. I immediately snapped to attention. I could know well the feeling, the momentary temptation Thompson must've felt to interrupt everything else he was doing, and begin copying on typewriter or computer that 182-page, 1925 marvel of American novel-writing, as if he, Hunter S. Thompson, were birthing it for the first time, too.

I, too, I felt, if I wanted to, could clear my computer screen, type the familiar title atop a fresh page, and feel Fitzgerald's creative energy flow from his alcohol-sodden brain, down my arm, and onto the page: "CHAPTER I: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since."

Well, none but an all-knowing God could forecast from this ho-hum first passage the later gorgeous stretches that always brought tears to my adolescent eyes before I fully understood what the sentences really meant.

Thompson was, I hear, a whiz on the IBM Selectric II, so I imagine he swept through the few mundane pages, and slowed to a crawl through the densely poetic ones: "His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God...."

Even as a second- or third-hand writer, you'd have some meager sense of participation in creation, and who'd want to rush through that? I can't know how Michelangelo's fingers must've felt giving shape to David. I can't fathom the vision and pure painterly skills that blessed Van Gogh's fingers to create his swirling nightscape. I can't even imagine Fitzgerald's eagerness to embark on a new novel after the universal lambasting his second, The Beautiful and Damned, had received. But I can clearly sense the rush I'd feel, once I'd cleared the mental hurdle of Gatsby's ending and its need to provide a smooth and forceful thematic climax. And now there'd remain only the typing of the words onto the paper! The sheer mechanics.

" ... as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes -- a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams... " My God, imagine blessing a blank sheet of snowy-white paper with those words! In a class with Shakespeare's sonnets, it surely is.

Yes, I hear you, Hunter S. Thompson, mon frere!