Gonzo At Rest

He pounced, throwing an arm lock around Rice’s neck. “Ah-ha,” Thompson exclaimed. Rice’s drink, ice cubes and all, flew toward the ceiling. Rice choked, turned red. As Thompson released his grip, Rice jerked around with a look of pain and primal fear on his face—and then broke into a wide grin. “Hunter!” he yelled, “Hunter, you almost killed me.”

The famous writer came back to his hometown this week. The purpose of his visit was a little improbable. He came back for a reunion of the Castlewood Athletic Club, a defunct sports and social club for middle-school kids that he belonged to when Eisenhower was President.

There was neither fear nor loathing during this trip, only heart-deep nostalgia and high jinks. It was three days of visiting family and old friends, a time devoted to slapping backs and yelling nicknames and horsing around with the boys grown gray and middle-aged.

In a guttural staccato, Thompson tried to explain his presence. “It’s an emotional thing with me. When we were growing up, we didn’t know what bonding was, but that’s what it was. We were a gang, and we still are.”

So he gorged on Norman Rockwell stuff—memories of leather football helmets striking leather pads on crisp autumn afternoons—strange for a writer who made his name by way of drug-infused explorations into American culture. With a highly personal style, known as “Gonzo,” Thompson raised his middle finger to generals and presidents (“that swine Nixon”) and heaped scorn on the establishment in such books as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

In a magazine piece called “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” he savaged the hometown party, attacking Louisville’s “whiskey gentry,” an affluent breed marked by “pink faces with a stylish Southern sag, old Ivy styles, seersucker coats and button-down collars.”

The packed crowd included lawyers, doctors, real-estate executives, and three bank presidents—some dressed in seersucker coats and button-down collars. The Gonzo writer moved among them easily, wearing dark glasses and a plaid shirt, a cigarette holder jutting from the corner of his mouth.

The source of memories and the cause of this gathering, Castlewood was founded in 1929. The club thrived in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, then fell out of fashion and finally disbanded in the social upheaval of the Sixties—ironically when Thompson was making his name as a writer.

Its members were boys who ranged in age from 10 to 16. Boys started the club, and boys ran it. In the spirit of its heyday, Castlewood had strict rules. Fines were levied for disrespectful behavior and cursing. Was Hunter Thompson ever fined for cursing?

“Hell, yes!”

—The Courier-Journal

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The Bloody Pen of David Levine

David Levine

— The New York Review of Books (www.nybooks.com/gallery)

Lyndon Johnson was worked over mercilessly in Levine’s caricatures. LBJ cried crocodiles over Vietnam, and his nose grew with each lie until it was as long as Pinochhio’s. Richard Nixon’s incisors gradually became fangs. His face got blotchier and his neck more wizened until his head looked like a piece of rotting fruit balanced on a slender stem. As for George Wallace, he threatened to sue over a caricature that transformed his chin dimple into a tiny swastika.

Levine insists he feels no malice toward those he draws. “President Johnson always reminded me of my favorite uncle. Many of his facial expressions and mannerisms were just like him—but my uncle didn’t have anything to do with Vietnam. It’s totally a matter of issues.”

Levine is an equal-opportunity caricaturist who is just as rough with liberals. His Hubert Humphrey writes a speech with an ear of corn. His portrayals of Robert Kennedy resulted in his being blackballed, or so it’s rumored, from the celebrity tennis tournament at Hickory Hill, the family estate in Virginia. Levine is an obsessed tennis player, and you get the feeling that really hurt.

Levine is also brutal with his own face. When he caricatures himself, he takes a nose that is mildly prominent and turns it into a huge, heavy blade with sharp edges and a wicked point. The exaggeration nods at self-deprecation, but hints at something more sinister. “This is a dangerous man,” the caricature says. He may dress in exquisite tweeds and live in a beautiful apartment in Brooklyn Heights with spectacular views of Lower Manhattan, but when he picks up his crow quill pen, terrible power can be unleashed.

Aside from the drama of his nose, the rest of Levine’s face is calm and symmetrical. The smile is broad and even. The black hair, cut plainly and without sideburns, is combed straight back from a high forehead. Without the nose, Levine would look like Mao Tse-Tung before he became chairman.

The resemblance to the young Mao may be appropriate. Levine’s father was a garment worker in New York, and the atmosphere at home and in the old neighborhood was strongly socialist. Levine’s political instincts remain left-wing, but his taste in art is conservative. Levine’s caricatures are rendered with delicate cross-hatching that recalls 19th Century illustration. His watercolors have a Whistlerian feel for light and shadow, and his sensitive portraits suggest Manet and Eakins. An avowed “art Bircher,” Levine once drew Pablo Picasso as a garbage man unloading a dump truck filled with his work. His caricature of Jackson Pollock shows the artist urinating on one of his splattered paintings.

“I’m moved by painters who investigate life. I might walk by a thousand religious paintings, and then see a Carravaggio. Now there’s a painter who really thought about what it would mean for Abraham to sacrifice his son.”

For Levine, Rembrandt is the great truth-seeker of the human soul. “He didn’t just observe the minutia of life. Rembrandt found a way to look at a pockmark and see in it the excitement of life. He looked at the way skin sags on the face and saw that it was sacred because life put it there.”

—The Louisville Times

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Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller in Philadelphia — Photograph by Ira Simmons

“Why do people call me optimistic? I’m a sailor, sir. I know I can’t cross the ocean on dumb luck. I know humanity can fail. I also feel nature bred us to succeed, and we have the mind and the tools. Shelter is a basic human need. We must have a membrane against the cold. Right now, from the material in the average automobile, I can make a house.”

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Harry Crews, Redneck ’Riter

Crews was born into a family of sharecroppers that farmed with mules. The house had few books beyond the Sears catalog and its bright, alluring pages. But as a boy, he felt the urge to write. “I have no idea where it came from. Strange thing, isn’t it?”

Crews said one explanation might be the Southern storytelling tradition. After a long day of work, the family entertained itself by talking. “Summertime on the front porch or in winter by the fireplace, with the foot tub passed around, we’d tell stories—the uncles, cousins, all the women.”

His family told stories, but could never understand his wanting to make a living by writing stories. “For a grown man not to have something useful in his hand—they can’t see that. It smacks of professional people, and of the feminine.”

Though Crews left the land, he still keeps sharecropper hours. The writing day starts at 3 a.m., without any prodding from an alarm clock, and he writes seven days a week. In his spare time, he has been a university professor, carnival barker, Marine, karate enthusiast, and trainer of falcons. Crews also managed to get a reputation as a hell raiser. He has been dry for a long time, but wears the legend on his face and six-foot frame.

His wary eyes—pale and glacial blue, like a Husky’s—peer out from under the furrowed ledge of his forehead. His face has been punched and shoved, creased by raucous laughter and countless howls of pain. His legs are stiff from too many motorcycle accidents. His right arm has a tattooed hinge, the result of getting drunk and failing asleep in the company of a tattoo artist while on a magazine assignment in Alaska.

Crews is best known for his novels, including A Feast of Snakes, The Gypsy Curse, and The Knockout Artist. His magazine profiles and articles have been collected in Blood and Grits. His work hasn’t strayed far from home. Most of his fiction is set in South Georgia or North Florida. The world formed by his novels is at once funny, sad, and violent, and populated with bizarre characters.

His books also have plenty of sex. “I can’t pretend people only exist from the navel up. If you have a problem with your rump, the doctor never says, ‘Excuse me, but I don’t look at rumps.’”

—The Courier-Journal

—drawing by Ira Simmons

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Delving into Darkness with a Name to Live Up To

The Adventures of Dr. Ronald Holmes, Criminologist

Holmes sees his study of crime as just another arcane academic specialty. Some professors are obsessed with the symbolist poets, and others study African beetles, and others do surveys on why red cans of soda sell better than blue cans.

“This is a part of life that most people never see or pretend doesn’t exist. I guess it’s my way to legitimately look into the dark side of life. The mystery of violence repels and attracts.”

Holmes credits his career to a strict Catholic upbringing. “I put it all on the good nuns. Everything was so bad and evil. Sex was nasty. The best people were celibate, those who could contain themselves. Well, naturally, since that part of life was forbidden, I became interested in it.”

The nuns pegged him as a future priest. Today, in balding middle age, he does look a bit like Friar Tuck. He still goes to church, but he hasn’t been to confession in ten years. He flashed a toothy grin. “Nothing to confess.”

For Holmes, the details of a murder scene can reveal much about the person who committed the crime. The choice of the victim and weapon, the kind and number of wounds, the amount of mutilation—all are pieces of a grim mosaic.

“If you’re a sloppy killer, you’ll be sloppy in everything else. If you’re neat and clean in murder, you’ll be neat and clean in everything you do. From the condition of the crime scene, we can get a picture of the person who did it—his race, age, and religion, how far away he lives, the kind of place he lives in and the condition of his car.”

—The Courier-Journal

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  • Selected Journalism

    For seventeen years I wrote for The Louisville Times and The Courier-Journal, long considered the nation's best morning-evening combination published by the same owner. I covered medicine and the environment and wrote extensively about education, alternative energy, and the arts.

    Journalism made me into a fast writer who holds deadlines sacred. More important, it made me go places I wouldn't have willingly gone and caused me grapple with the essence of reporting, which I came to feel was the art of explaining without over-simplifying. The good reporter researches a subject to death and makes it understandable, while doing justice to its complexity.

    Maybe I absorbed too much religion as a child, but I came to see the conscientious reporter as an instrument of truth, bearing witness in a world dominated by the loud, the distracted, and the willfully ignorant. That’s the ideal; I don’t claim to have been an exemplar.

    My newspaper career, though, was bookended by two major scoops. Both involved getting into restricted places. When I was a green reporter, my editors put me on a small plane to Eastern Kentucky to cover a coal-mine explosion that had trapped a dozen miners under a mountain. I got past police lines and company security and was the only reporter to see what was happening at the site. I waited with the families and listened to the worry and anger the company didn’t want the public to hear, and I was with them when they learned no one had survived.

    One of the last stories I covered was the appearance of General Norman Schwarzkopf at the Kentucky Derby right after the first Gulf war. I went to the clubhouse early and found the section of “Millionaire’s Row” where the General and his family would be ensconced. This area was strictly off-limits to the press and heavily guarded because of fears of terrorist reprisals, but I got there before the Secret Service detail arrived to set up security.

    To my amazement, the agents assumed I was just another millionaire. They never bothered to ask for my credentials or frisk me. I spent most of the afternoon standing near the General. Had I been an evil-doer, I could've pushed him over the rail. Instead I witnessed his bombardment by fawning smiles, unctuous praise, and endless small talk. I also learned the White House was trying to get the media hero of Desert Storm to run for the Senate.

    So, you know, maybe I wasn’t much of a reporter, but I had the power to cloud men’s minds.