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Excellent for what it was, but not timeless
on 28 July 2009
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 is an odd book if, like me, you have only a bare bones understanding of American politics. Those familiar with the political figures of the '72 US election will, undoubtedly, have a different stance, but I felt oddly schizophrenic when reading it. I'll explain why.
Much of the book is dedicated to facts, figures, numbers, percentages, and predictions - possibly more than Thompson, calling the work a 'campaign diary' and not a historical document, would care to believe - and as such these are fairly meaningless to me. Not just because I know nothing about the 72 election, what with it being a) in a different country and b) eighteen years before I was born, but also because they often require context, something that Thompson sometimes spares us.
Then there's an intermediary area, where Thompson examines the key campaign figures as people, rather than flat-out politicians. This is interesting to me, simply because (with the exception of Richard Nixon, who I'd have to have been living in a box to avoid) Thompson's interpretation is the only one I've ever received. In this respect, someone approaching the election with no prior knowledge almost sees the whole thing through HST's eyes - I have no other perspective, so the images he creates - true or otherwise - are all I have to go on.
And then there's the gonzo spark - that key sense of involvement that drives HST's writing. This is the bit that appealed the most, I'm ashamed to say - not the precision storytelling, or the analyses of each campaign figure, one at a time, but when Thompson becomes part of the story. The part of this book that will stay with me is his account of how, during the outcome of one of the primaries, HST is nowhere near a television, or any campaign figures; instead, he goes down to the beach in the middle of a storm, swims out to sea and nearly drowns.
If you're expecting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas all over again, don't. This is a fairly even balance of the decadent mess of Las Vegas that makes that novel a classic, and serious political reportage that will only really appeal to those who have a cursory understanding of the key figures in the 72 election. But by all means, give it a go.