Review of Ron Whitehead’s The Third Testament: Three Gospels of Peace & Closing Time:
Hunter S. Thompson is dead.
Hardly are those words out when a vast image out of America’s eye comes spinning open Vertigo-like to reveal an unguarded coastline and an unprotected sky. We have lost him. The last great American word warrior is dead and the land stiffens with fear too weak to loathe. He was dedicated to pulling aside the unreasoning American robot mask to reveal the machinery, all its oily cogs of politics and wheels of rot. There was one thing always to be said about Thompson’s writing: he gave it to you straight. He gave it to you straight, no chaser, no training wheels, no water, and no mercy. It was hallucinatory or poetry mad prose but it was always straight. Thompson’s instructions for Reading Gonzo Journalism:
*Half-pint, 10-inch hypo-needle (the kind used for spinal taps & inoculating bulls)
He gave it to you straight, straight and pure like Menken and Hemingway, Kerouac and Ginsberg. It was strong medicine for a sick patient. But now the Doctor is out and we are left to our national infections, our own empire diseases, our own America. The last great word warrior in American letters is gone.
Thompson wrote about the things he loved: America , politics, excess, sports, shooting guns (but I always fired into the nearest hill or, failing that, into blackness. I meant no harm; I just liked the explosions). Thompson wrote about the things he hated: lies and liars. His work is in the tradition of Rabelais and Swift, Arthur Miller and William S. Burroughs. He wrote a diabolical prose leading down the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire of the American dream. Thompson never pulled a word-punch in his life. He was incapable of lying and he could not abide liars. Thompson once spent an hour driving across New Hampshire in the back of Nixon’s limo with the man himself. He was granted this exclusive encounter on the condition that he speak about “nothing except football.” “Whatever else might be said about Nixon, and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for Human, he is a goddamn stone fanatic on every facet of pro football.” When Nixon died Thompson gave no quarter because he respected the hatred he had for his enemy. And he respected his enemy for changing his writing:
You had to get Subjective. Getting subjective was the key to it all, getting inside yourself to report on the world, going inward to go outward. Thompson’s greatest books are visionary tales of ripping apart himself to put the world together again. (D. H. Lawrence on Poe: Man must be stripped even of himself. And it is a painful, sometimes a ghastly process.) His non-fiction is fiction and his fiction is non-fiction. ( Lawrence : Art-speech is the only truth. An artist is usually a damned liar, but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth of his day.) Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints. He was a volcano of American ingenuity and American humor. He was a great American artist.
Thompson’s writing is journalism, fiction, autobiography, travel writing, satire, carnival prose and a summation of American literature: it’s Huck again with muddy feet lighting out for the territory and Melville’s punch in the face of God called The Whale coupling with his Confidence Man passing out drunk with Old Rip blasted awake by ROCK AND ROLL! breeding The Searchers screened for Horatio Alger eating acid and vomiting up Whitman! Whitman! Whitman! who rips out the roots under Pound playing kangaroo tennis with young serious Hemingway slowly carving out words in a Paris garret as his hungry baby cries Kerouac! Kerouac! Kerouac! in search of his roots, his family, Kerouac in search of himself in Satori in Paris:
Ecstasy of the mind. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas . Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism. Kerouac’s true-life novels are the keys to Thompson’s kingdom. You had to get Subjective. Kerouac wrote speedy tortured deep binge hangover books about his life. He gave it his all. This was the Beat lesson that Thompson learned early and he gave it his all. In a letter, Thompson responded to his publisher’s questions about how to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
You had to get Subjective. You had to burn for the story. You had to burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles. Thompson covered his life and times like a giant Wicker Man, flaming out across the story and into American consciousness. He covered the story from the Kentucky Derby to his final writings on 9/11 for ESPN.com. He covered the story of America . He was a human fire fierce glowing, the corporal form gone now, turned to ashes and shot across his farm. Dr. Thompson is dead but long live Gonzo!
Gonzo lives. It lives in Thompson’s books and in the new literary forms he created. It lives in the movies and in the young readers who discover him each year, every year. It lives in rock culture and gonzo porn and dictionaries (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: 1971): idiosyncratically subjective but engaging. It lives in the work of Ron Whitehead, poet and promoter, publisher and gadfly, teacher and organizer, writer and rock and roller. Whitehead is a fellow Kentuckian and a fellow honorary Kentucky Colonel (he was so named along with Thompson, Warren Zevon, Johnny Depp and David Amram by the Governor of Kentucky during a Thompson tribute Whitehead organized in 1996). Whitehead’s new book, The Third Testament: Three Gospels of Peace, is a collection of three books of poetry written over a decade. And if it is a Gospel of Peace it is also a manifesto of Poetic Energy and Aesthetic Thunder. Whitehead gives it his all: his native Kentucky, his Beat roots, his scholarly analysis of the power of poetry, his rock swagger, his politics, his spirit quest, his jokes, his fiery enthusiasm for the word, his personal journalism. You had to be Subjective. Ecstasy of the Mind.
The sonic exuberance of Whitehead’s poetry is fueled by his personal journalism, his covering of the story called Ron Whitehead. The poem that opens the first volume, I Will Not Bow Down, is a travel poem, a travel poem to City Lights:
It is also a travel poem into his literary influences and the direct line of Beat power behind rock and roll. It is a travel poem into himself. In the middle of the second collection, Blood Filled Vessels Racing to the Heart, he travels like the microscopic scientists in Fantastic Voyage (Raquel Welch!) into his own book:
Whitehead is in himself and in himself he discovers two selves: Brain and Bone. Brain is the half that writes a dissertation entitled Quest For Self In The Ocean Of Consciousness: The Origins of Expressionism and Modernism. Bone is the half that dances.
We have met the Bone Man before in Whitehead’s white-heat engine of a Bildungsroman called Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon. Personal journalism. Bone is also the rocker part of Whitehead, the poet who performs with rock bands and rocks the world with protest poems like Tapping My Own Phone and The Declaration of Independence this Time. Whitehead’s voice has to be heard to be felt. His new CD, Closing Time, is a crystallization of his voice and his work: his family sings, his Beat roots sing, his personal journalism rocks. Closing Time is an opening into himself, into the rock of his soul and the roll of his words. Intercalated.
Bone rocks and Brain writes: The Poet Prophet of Now approaches, encounters, and translates the mysterium tremendum, the numinous, by utilizing her or his own individualized, hybrid, secular, religious, spiritual, aesthetic, artistic alchemy. You had to be Subjective. This was the great lesson Whitehead has distilled from Thompson and the writers, artists, and thinkers who have provoked and shaped him. Ecstasy of the Mind.
Thompson once called Whitehead’s poetry, “a dazzling mix of folk wisdom and pure mathematics.” Bone and Brain. Thompson is gone. Whitehead is here to remind us of the power of his words and to set the day on fire with his own. In a letter to a Vietcong colonel, Thompson introduced himself: I’m not an especially good typist, but I am one of the best writers currently using the English language as both a musical instrument and a political weapon. Whitehead has picked up the word weapon and the Kings of Empire tremble at the vision.