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“Why’s this so good?” No. 87: Hunter S. Thompson and the Kentucky Derby

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It’s easy to miss. A sobering second, surrounded by intemperance. But there it is, the transitional scene after Hunter S. Thompson opens “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” with some lewd banter in a Louisville airport bar. He’s returned home to cover the race for a no-name magazine, and right away he meets a man called Jimbo, who’s travelled from Texas “to get it on.” At the bar, Thompson feeds his acquaintance a series of straight lines, and the hard-chargin’ Houstonian reacts on cue: First, he orders a margarita, and Jimbo loses his mind (“Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey…”); then Thompson tells his companion he’s a photographer for Playboy, which elicits: “Well, goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of—nekkid horses?” Finally, Thompson jangles Jimbo’s nerves by telling him the National Guard expects a Derby Day riot between the Black Panthers and “busloads of white crazies” to which poor old Jimbo can only cry: “Oh…Jesus! What in the name of God is happening to this country? Where can you go to get away from it?” Thompson presciently tells him, “Not here,” and decamps to the car rental counter. On his way, he stops at a newsstand. The papers offer a caffeinated jolt that cuts through the bourbon fog:

At the airport newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the front page headlines: “Nixon Sends GI’s into Cambodia to Hit Reds”… “B-52’s Raid, then 20,000 GI’s Advance 20 Miles”… “4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest.” At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The photographer had snapped her “stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom.” The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news and stories of “student unrest.” There was no mention of any trouble brewing at a university in Ohio called Kent State.

Joshua Roiland

Josh Roiland

Thompson does not comment on the headlines; they’re a caesura, momentarily forestalling the debauch that lies ahead. But the interruption is important. The headlines provide a moral compass with which to navigate the wayward behavior that follows.

At the Hertz counter, Thompson confesses a passing regret about spoiling Jimbo’s fun before dismissing the notion on the grounds that “Anybody who wanders around the world saying, ‘Hell yes, I’m from Texas,’ deserves whatever happens to him.” But that humor is backlit by the more serious sentence that follows: “And he had, after all, come here once again to make a nineteenth-century ass of himself in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable ‘tradition.’” And at once, Thompson reduces the Derby, a then-hallowed cornerstone of the American sporting scene, to little more than a spectacle of crass consumerism solipsitically existing because of itself, with Jimbo morphing from an outsized caricature into a living embodiment of the “the mask of the whiskey gentry,” the race’s key demographic, whom Thompson would later describe as “a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.” The decadence and depravity all taking place in the shadow of much more serious national and international politics.

Thompson’s piece originally appeared in the fourth issue of Scanlan’s Monthly, in June 1970. In the story Thompson mentions his magazine in hopes of getting a last-minute press pass. The Derby’s sports information director is incredulous. “[W]hat the hell is Scanlan’s Monthly anyway?” he asks, and for good reason: The publication survived only through the first month of 1971. But that was long enough for Tom Wolfe to find Thompson’s story and shelve it between narratives by Terry Southern and Norman Mailer in his seminal 1973 anthology The New Journalism. Scholars often point to “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” as the origin of Gonzo Journalism—that wacked-out, hallucina-participatory style of Thompson’s that became fully realized in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, before it became a caricature imprisoning him in a cage of his own creation.

After the airport, the action accelerates. Thompson rents a “huge Pontiac Ballbuster” and sets out to locate Ralph Steadman, a then-unknown English illustrator whom Scanlan’s had hired to sketch “that special kind of face” that best represented the Derby’s hedonic zeitgeist. But Thompson can’t find him. He asks his motel clerk if she’s seen Steadman and receives a startling description of the Englishman whom Thompson then pictures as “some nerve-rattling geek all covered with matted hair and string-warts.” There go the press passes, he figures.

Steadman, it turns out, was not some hideously deformed reject, but rather a cheery, naïve foil to Thompson’s garish gonzo. But his sketches — primal, ink-spattered, reptilian — proved to be the graphic equivalent of Thompson’s whisky-wild reporting, and have since become inextricably linked with the writer. When Thompson first saw the bug-eyed drawings, however, he was deeply bothered, and that dissonance led to the funniest scene in the story. The American and the Englishman go out to dinner with Thompson’s brother and sister-in-law, who have made a home in Louisville. Told in flashback, the details of the evening are vague, but it’s clear that at some point things went horribly wrong. Thompson accuses Steadman of ruining the night by making abrasive sketches at the dinner table, which, he says, upset his family and caused a scene that resulted in them being thrown out of the restaurant. Steadman counters, saying that the drawings weren’t the culprit, but rather it was Thompson’s indiscriminate use of Mace (including spraying the waiter) that disrupted dinner: “The room was full of that damn gas. Your brother was sneezing and his wife was crying. My eyes hurt for two hours. I couldn’t see to draw when I got back to the motel.” Thompson considers this counterpoint then concedes, “Yeah…well, okay…Let’s just figure we fucked up about equally on that one.”

He and Steadman steadily build a rapport through drink and a desire to find a face that, to Thompson, was “a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.” At one point, frustrated by their lack of progress, Steadman suggests they “go native” — transform from observer to participant. And from there the depravity swells. Booze cascades through the weekend. So does Mace. Both to blinding effect. Daydreaming about Derby Day, Thompson considers turning “Chemical Billy” (purchased for $5.98 at a downtown drugstore) loose onto Kentucky Gov. Louis Nunn, whom he describes as “a swinish neo-Nazi hack.” The fantasy is just one of many delusions he suffers as he finds himself “churning around in a sea of drunken horrors.” Each iteration of insanity bringing him closer to revealing the visage hidden behind the mask.

On the eve of the race, Thompson notes, “From that point on, the weekend became a vicious, drunken nightmare. We both went completely to pieces.” Such a breakdown raises a key concern whenever one reads Thompson: trust. How does one trust a journalist who muses that a potential reporting method would be to “load up on acid and spend the day roaming around the clubhouse grounds”? Do the drinking and drugs undermine his journalism? Perhaps. But Thompson mitigates this concern by being transparent about his reporting process. He reflexively includes his difficulties discerning events after the fact:

My notes and recollections from Derby Day are somewhat scrambled.

But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less what happened. The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story.

The New Journalism was plagued by charges of exaggeration and fabrication. Writing nearly a generation after the work of Didion, Wolfe, Mailer, and Thompson emerged as a sustained literary movement, John Hersey, a literary journalism predecessor, was dismissive of the era, saying the legend on every journalist’s license must read: “NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.” (Never mind that Hersey’s acclaimed World War II profile “Joe is Home Now,” published on July 3, 1944, in Life magazine, was a composite of 43 returning soldiers. Though to be fair, composites were more professionally acceptable in that era, with A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell joining Hersey in utilizing the technique.) Hersey’s derision calls attention to the ambiguous alternatives available to writers when determining how to present facts. I am not arguing in favor of exaggeration or fabrication, but I believe Thompson’s inclusion of the whiskey-stained notebook denotes an essential moment of self-accounting. His transparency offers readers a more honest relationship with the facts than the misleading sense of neutrality presented by the plain style that Hersey used in Hiroshima, which preys upon what Hugh Kenner called readers’ “no-nonsense connoisseurship of fact.” Thompson’s facts may be blurry, but readers understand and recalibrate their expectations accordingly.

It is after that confessional preface, two-thirds the way through the story, that Thompson finally recounts Derby Day. The descriptions are episodic, and Thompson’s tone changes. It’s more clipped. Terse. He removes subjects and articles from sentences. His style confers suspicion. Eyes darting back and forth. Paranoid impressionism:

I tell you, Colonel, the world has gone mad, stone mad. Why, they tell me a goddam woman jockey might ride in the Derby today.

And the reader is immediately transported back to the Louisville airport newsstand and the sexualized cutline subverting a story about Diane Crump, the first female jockey to run for the roses, who is “stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom.” Earlier, Thompson had called these “twisted times,” and as that sun-baked second day of May stretched out in anticipation of the race, the madness metastasized. Twice Thompson uses the adjective atavistic to describe the scene. There is some elemental force animating the thousands who have congregated in this “a huge outdoor loony bin.” It was a nation weary of war news. Disinterested in dissent. (Recall Jimbo’s cry: “Where can you go to get away from it all?”). But even here the police carry riot sticks. And were those riot rumors real? It doesn’t matter: “By midafternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races.” And Thompson and Steadman can’t help but get caught in the contagion: “By this time we were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general dissolution.”

Dust Commander, a three-year-old chestnut who went off as a 16-1 longshot, won the 1970 Kentucky Derby. Despite his victory, the colt received exactly one sentence in Thompson’s 7,000-word story. He offered a not-so-subtle reporting rationale: “[W]e didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.” The metaphor is heavy-handed, but his expository list continues to clarify who wears the mask of the whisky gentry: “[P]oliticians, society belles and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within five hundred miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious.” Awash in this debauch, Thompson follows the desultory party to its extreme, inevitable conclusion: “The rest of the day blurs into madness. The rest of the night too. And all the next day and night. Such horrible things occurred that I can’t bring myself even to think about them now, much less put them down in print. I was lucky to get out at all.”

But the story does not end there. It goes on for another 1,300 words. The coda a crippling hangover streaked with sunlight.

The scene is Thompson’s hotel room. Monday morning, coming down. Steadman turns up looking for breakfast. He finds a Colt .45 in a bedside beer bucket. Thompson can barely open his eyes. When he does, he catches sight of himself in the mirror across the room. Confusion gives way to recognition, as he realizes that the face at this heart of darkness belongs to him:

There he was, by God—a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature…like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for—and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, Horrible….

Ever the Marlow to Thompson’s Kurtz, Steadman recaps the horror they’ve experienced as he finishes his beer and fishes for two more to help calm his trembling hands. He tells Thompson: “We came down here to see this teddible scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomiting on themselves and all that…and now, you know what? It’s us…”

But Steadman is wrong. The plural object is incorrect; he is just a foreign auxiliary. The disease-ridden mask is Thompson’s, and he wears it alone. Despite gamely garnering Thompson’s trust by immersing himself in the pre-race debasement, Steadman’s nationality subtly segregates him. Like the anthropologist he strove to be, Steadman cannot fully acculturate. He’ll never be native, as the story’s radical dénouement makes plain.

Thompson begins the bizarre final paragraph with a radio news bulletin: The National Guard has murdered students at Kent State; Nixon continues to bomb Cambodia. These are American problems, and they connote an American story. The bulletin reconnects readers with those troubling headlines back in the Louisville airport newsstand. Dropping Steadman off for his return flight to England, Thompson switches his narration to the third person: “The journalist is driving, ignoring his passenger who is now nearly naked after taking off most of his clothing.” He has turned his canister of Mace on Steadman, who pathetically attempts to “wind-wash” the substance out of his clothes after vomiting, then soaking himself with beer in a futile attempt to cleanse himself of that damned gas.

The third person is integral to this final scene. It allows Thompson to divorce himself from Steadman, and to objectify the journalist’s jingoism. Transformation complete, Thompson literally pushes Steadman out of the car and out of the story, finishing with a series of vile and unexpected epithets:

Bug off, you worthless faggot! You twisted pigfucker! [Crazed laughter.] If I weren’t sick I’d kick your ass all the way to Bowling Green—you scumsucking foreign geek. Mace is too good for you…We can do without your kind in Kentucky.

Foreign geek. Your kind.

This is the nationalism of Nixon, of Jimbo, and ultimately of Thompson and the careless crowd at the Kentucky Derby. They all go to great lengths to inoculate themselves from the political realities of their time. Thompson is both critic and accomplice, and his schizophrenic conclusion is an unsettling reminder that beneath that sodden veneer those realities remain.

Josh Roiland is in his second year as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of American Studies and the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. His teaching and research examine the political, cultural, and literary significance of American journalism. He is currently revising his dissertation into the book The Elements of Literary Journalism: The Political Promise of Narrative News. He has two articles coming out in Literary Journalism Studies: one on Langston Hughes, the other on David Foster Wallace. His previous essay on Wallace is collected in the anthology The Legacy of David Foster Wallace. He tweets at @JoshRoiland.

For the archive of our “Why’s this so good?” series, go here.




One comment

  1. Edward Olivera
    posted November 25, 2013 at 9:57 am | permalink

    Brilliant piece by Thompson. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. He is a master stylist. There are some rough spots, but you can see the writer that would soon emerge.

    There’s been some recent stuff in the news following his recent biography on Thompson’s early career as a sports journalist and his start as a writer before Hell’s Angels appeared. This fits nicely into that strange path he followed, connecting his apprenticeship – such as it was – to his later emergence as a voice of a generation.

    What’s so striking is how Thompson captures the surreal mood of the country during the period he’s writing in. He does this by taking some hallowed American tradition (“atavistic” is used perhaps three times too many)and showing how sick and depraved an event it truly is, from his and Steadman’s points of view if not in actuality.

    Can we trust this deranged man’s view of the event? This is the crux of Thompson’s style. He refers back to his own depravity and mental collapse while noting the insanity of the world around him and this suspension holds the reader in a kind of disequilibrium.

    And he accomplishes this feat in the most flawless prose being written.

    His loss saddens me, but how long could anyone have kept up such a show?

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  1. [...] out of the Neiman Storyboard’s “Why’s This So Good?” and Words Without Borders. Yet from “Why’s this so good?” No. 87: Hunter S. Thompson and the Kentucky Derby and the Words Without Borders’ July 2013 back issue on Iran’s Postrevolution Generation, I was [...]

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