The average person probably thinks of Hunter S. Thompson as played by Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a partly bald guy in sunset aviators smoking a Dunhill cigarette out of a holder, high on LSD and drunk on Wild Turkey. Easily forgotten is the young, intrepid reporter Thompson was in the 1960s when he worked for a year covering South American politics for the National Observer.
In The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America, author and University of Montana graduate Brian Kevin travels to South America to discover the greenhorn Thompson, before he was the well-known (and well-caricatured) gonzo journalist and counterculture hero. Kevin relies on old letters written by Thompson (published in the 1997 collection The Proud Highway), as well as early newspaper articles Thompson wrote while he was traveling through South America. Kevin’s own six months of adventures follow the path from Panama down through the Andes to Argentina and up through Brazil. He begins the book with, “I was tearing across the roadless desert in the back of a jostling beer truck … a blast beat echoed across the flats, muffling the clink of contraband bottles, a death-metal soundtrack to the raw-bone panorama of sand and sky.”
The Footloose American isn’t an attempt to emulate Thompson’s gonzo style—Kevin’s punchy prose are his own. In part, the book aims to unravel the man behind the myth, but mostly Kevin uses Thompson’s work as a guide to discover how the same political, cultural and social issues of South America have (or haven’t) changed since Thompson wrote about them 50 years ago.
How did you first become acquainted with Thompson’s travels in South America?
Brian Kevin: In The Proud Highway there’s just fewer than 20 letters from this year that Thompson spent as a freelance foreign correspondent in South America in 1962 and 1963, while he was still sort of cutting his teeth. And, also, there’s an anthology from the late ’70s of some of his early magazine work that contains maybe six out of the 18 newspaper stories he did while he was down there. It’s not like it’s a secret—this material is out there—but it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention because it predates this counterculture character that came later on.
When and why did you decide you were going to write this book?
BK: I was probably 21 or 22 and I was sort of in that what-am-I-doing-with-myself moment that a lot of us probably have had. I was already an admirer of his at that point, I’d read all the big ones—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and On the Campaign Trail, Hells Angels and The Rum Diary, which is not that great of a book but it’s interesting—and so with the South America [writings] it was like, “Wow, man, why have I not heard of this before?” I remember thinking that it would be rad to pick up and travel the world and, also, that the handful of letters from South America seemed like an inadequate exploration of what must have been a pretty significant turning point in this guy’s life.
But I didn’t really travel the world. I got a magazine job and then I moved to Missoula for school and I got married at one point and the better part of eight years went by. But there was a point where all of a sudden I had graduated and I wasn’t married anymore and I had no idea what I was about to do. The dramatic answer is that I decided to do this thing I didn’t do eight years ago and travel the world ... and it also seemed like a potentially good writing project.
What were you hoping to find out about Thompson in your travels?
BK: He has this tantalizing quote in The Proud Highways that goes, “After a year of roaming around down here the main thing I’ve learned is that I now understand the United States and why it will never be what it could have been, or at least tried to be.” And he doesn’t elaborate! So it’s this great line from a guy who later on claims his journalistic beat to be “the death of the American dream.”
How did you decide where you would go and what you would do down there?
BK: I wanted to look into the topics he was writing about 50 years ago and kind of see how those story lines were progressing. So if Thompson wrote about mining in Bolivia, which he did, then that would become the topic I would look into, rather than just having this backpacking trip bouncing around the continent, hanging out at hostels doing all the bullshit and then expecting it to be an interesting narrative.
What surprised you the most in your research and travels?
BK: Thompson had good political instincts and he was there at a very pivotal time. The U.S. was just sort of dabbling in what we now call “nation-building,” and Thompson was narrating about that meddling. So much of that shit is still playing out and that became clear to me over and over again. But I went down there on the heels of Occupy Wall Street and so that was kind of eerie. Income inequality was such a major theme in Thompson’s writing because it was such a major theme in Latin America. But all of the sudden, we see that this major theme has kind of crept its way back into our story here in the developed world. Those echoes across the 50-year span, that’s what ended up being surprising to me.
What is it about the gonzo style that appeals to people?
BK: I think there are folks in the journalism community and serious readers who see him as a mold-breaker. With Hells Angels or a lot of the great earlier magazine journalism he was getting past the bullshit, the mustiness, I guess, of stale official newspaper journalism. I think that’s a good reason to admire the gonzo thing—also, it’s super funny.
But there’s another thing. He probably has given rise to as much really bad writing as he’s served as a hero to really good writers. The darker appeal of the gonzo thing is that notion that, “I can be a wild crazy fuck-around and somehow that itself is a revolutionary act and will catapult my prose and my insights to new lengths,” which is totally not true.
What were your thoughts about Thompson coming out of this project?
BK: One of the really neat things about digging into anything Thompson did in the early 1960s, including but not limited to his South American reportage, is that you see glimmers of that gonzo style, but you also see someone who had a super firm grasp on the fundamentals. He had a knack for getting powerful images across within an 800-word newspaper article for a general audience. He was a badass reporter and he continued to have strong political instincts even when he became kind of schlocky writer in the 1990s and 2000s. He was good at knowing what the story was.