Posted by Jesse Jarnow


It's snowing here in Brooklyn, much as I imagine it is in Woody Creek, at Owl Farm.

For no apparent reason, the soft, white ground on the basketball court outside reminds me of "Fear and Loathing in Elko," a latter-day Thompson fantasia, in which he barrels over a flock of sheep in his red 454 V-8 Chevrolet "running about eighty-eight or ninety miles an hour in a drenching, blinding rain on US-40 between Winnemucca and Elko with one light out."

This is the part I remember: "My heart was full of joy as I took the first hit, which was oddly soft and painless. ... These huge white lumps were not boulders. They were sheep. Dead and dying sheep. More and more of them, impossible to miss at this speed, piled up on one another like bodies at the battle of Shiloh. It was like running over wet logs. Horrible, horrible..."

Look, I don't know why I remembered the sheep. I don't even particularly recall the details of the story. I think it had something to do with the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. It wasn't Thompson's best. Even given its road setting, it's clear Thompson never left the confines of Owl Farm to write it. There's no particular reportage, nor point of view, nor even a plot. Without those elements, it floats free, more like a melody than a story.

"Did you just say 'fascist libertarian?" an anonymous student asks Thompson on a 1977 lecture recording somebody sent me long ago. I didn't listen to it until I happened to put it on my iPod last week.

"I'm just trying out phrases," Thompson admits politely. "I don't get a chance to use microphones that often and hear what it sounds like in a hall like this."

The tone of "Fear and Loathing in Elko" is surreal, the timbre visceral, the turns of phrase hilarious. It's pure language, maybe pure Gonzo. But it's not very memorable. There is no way around it. In his later years, Thompson's output dwindled and its quality lessened or -- if we should be polite to the deceased -- perhaps merely its impact declined. He can't have enjoyed that. Thompson was a man of Action, and impact was a good thing, an Important Thing.

On the live recording, Thompson is at his populist, slapstick best: acerbic, quick, even coherent. His voice -- 40 years old at the time -- is a soft drawl, sweet at times, maybe even possible to discern a bit of a Kentucky accent. He is the center of attention. When I met him in February 2003 -- at the Woody-Allen/George-Plimpton/Upper-East-Side-liberal-elite hangout, Elaine's -- he struck me as a large child, literally squawking like a Tourettic. He hit people over the head with a plastic mallet that made the sound of shattered glass. (Oddly, I can't remember if he hit me or not, and wonder now if it would have meant anything if he did.)

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