January 2005

Adam Lipkin

nonfiction

Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness by Hunter S. Thompson

Gonzo journalism always seemed most suited to two things: politics and sports. Few other fields are filled with the deep levels of corruption, insanely overpaid egoists, and sheer obliviousness as these two, and asking Hunter S. Thompson, the originator of the style, to write a weekly column for their website was a stroke of genius on ESPN's part. In 2000, ESPN decided to make their site more "entertaining," but when your most engaging writing is Peter Gammons, you're not going to get a lot of (intentional) laughs without going outside the traditional sportswriting field. Thompson's columns added a sense of legitimacy to ESPN's site, as well as a sense of the absurd that I suspect took some execs by surprise. The first few years of resulting columns have now been collected in Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness: Modern History from the Sports Desk, a book that highlights the best and worst of Gonzo journalism.

If you're not already familiar with Thompson's style, it's a mix of run-on sentences, Random Capitalizations, and stream-of-consciousness that defies almost every traditional journalistic convention, up and including the one about not blending fact and fiction. In Rube, this means we not only get rants about every Nascar and Major League Baseball, we also get rants about George Bush's lack of ethics and intelligence -- Thompson calls him the "embattled child-president" -- and multi-column digressions about a Prince Omar who comes over to Thompson's house to gamble away his own sister. Sports fan or not, you'll need a good sense of the absurd before you even start reading a book by Thompson.

Once you get past the surrealism, Rube is one of the angriest books I've read in years. Starting from a general tone of outrage over the state of sports (something that's well-earned), with ire aimed at everything from the mess of the current NBA mediocrity to the gambling pitfalls involved in the NCAA Final Four, his outrage grows as the columns span the controversial 2000 national elections, and then continues to expand after September 11, 2001. His September 12 column, in which he states, "this is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed -- for anyone, and certainly not for a baffled little creep like George W. Bush," [sic] is strikingly prescient three years later.

But Thompson's anger is tempered by his sense of humor. His suggestions for improving baseball include replacing the pitcher with a pitching machine, and in talking about an NFL playoff game, he says that, "The Tennessee Titans will beat the jibbering slime out of the Dallas Cowboys tonight." Thompson, thankfully, is no Jimmy the Greek. His insight into sports is as keen as it is funny, highlighted particularly by the "Blood and guts, bread and circuses, human brains all over the asphalt" column in which he takes Nascar officials (and, by association, fans) to task for the way they reacted to Dale Earnhardt's death.

Thompson's work isn't for everyone; I'm actually shocked that it's lasted for over three years on ESPN's site. Longtime Thompson fans will probably be okay with the digressions, but may find that the focus on sports (as well as the comparatively short column size) prevents some of the longer political ranting they might have expected from him. And any sports or political junkie, although likely to find lots of gems here, will have to approach this book expecting something a lot less straightforward than the typical newspaper editorial. But fans of the Gonzo movement who also follow sports (it's a given that they follow politics) will find themselves laughing and nodding at almost every page in the book. Thirty years after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson remains one of America's most engaging journalists.

Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness by Hunter S. Thompson
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0684873192
272 Pages