It's a biographer's job to turn life into story, to find beats in the day-to-day and shape them into arcs that will satisfy readers without getting too heavy-handed. In Outlaw Journalist: The Life And Times Of Hunter S. Thompson, William McKeen has his work cut out for him. Thompson spent the last two decades before his 2005 suicide trying to come to terms with the oversized public persona he loathed, and the trick for anyone trying to tell the man's "real" story is in hitting a balance between caricature and reality. The temptation, as the saying goes, would be to "print the legend," but McKeen honors the memory of the Great Agitator by making him human—maddening and profane, but in the end, a man who lived well and wrote better.
Journalist starts with Thompson's childhood in Louisville, where he learned the fine art of juvenile delinquency while applying to the local literary club. He follows through Thompson's time in the Air Force, champing at the bit under authority's reins, but developing an interest in journalism that would define his career. McKeen describes the eventual development of gonzo reportage, a no-holds-barred series of dispatches that frequently cast Thompson as their focus—drugged out, twitching, and constantly on the run from last week's deadline. The device came to haunt him in later years, as the publicity turned him from the voice of a generation to a celebrity uneasy in the cage of fame, but it also inspired his work. Thompson always made his own best subject.
McKeen clarifies early on that he was with friends with Thompson, and Journalist is an affectionate portrait, albeit one that doesn't ignore Thompson's more difficult side. Thompson took issue with being seen as a drug-crazed cartoon, but his real-life antics weren't always amusingly cartoonish; he had a controlling, abusive side that made relationships difficult, especially romantic ones, and his aggressive sense of humor could often seem more madness than wit. Still, it's impossible to finish Journalist without respecting the love others felt for him, or feeling a pang at his loss. Fear and loathing will always be around, but the craft needed to make them sing is forever in short supply.