Finishing Marc Weingarten's 2005 study of New Journalism, "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight, Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism Revolution,"made me wish that Hunter S. Thompson or Norman Mailer were still around to cover Donald Trump.
Thompson's wildly impressionistic "Gonzo" journalism would give the Trump campaign the satirical skewering it deserves. Of course, the Donald's bizarre statements and own mental twilight world are beyond Thompson's most extreme imaginings.
Mailer would also puncture Trump's balloon, although the Donald needs little help with his self-destruction.
I loved Thompson's work, especially "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail," but his blending of fact and fantasy would be condemned these days. Looking back, I wince at his excesses.
Now, Trump bases his campaign on fantasy, without even worrying about facts.
Fresh insights on familiar subject
Weingarten's book covers well-traveled ground, but he gives enough new information and narrative energy to maintain interest.
He gives short-shrift to Didion, who's received sufficient attention elsewhere, including Tracy Daughtery's recent biography. Truman Capote, whose "In Cold Blood" was a new journalism classic, and Gay Talese make early appearances, but disappear.
Great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin is shown in a heroic light. An editor who suspected Breslin of making up characters visited one of the bars he wrote about, and found a menage of characters there matching Breslin's descriptions.
The main figures are Thompson, who receives a multi-chapter accounting of his bizarre career, and Wolfe, also thoroughly vetted. With their flights of language and immersions in heightened experience, Wolfe and Thompson are seen as each other's separated twins.
Among lesser known writers, Esquire's ground-breaking Vietnam correspondent John Sack receives a worthy re-examination. Sack's account of a military unit's Vietnam experience deserves fresh recognition.
Weingarten points to the late Michael Herr's questionable use of composite characters in the noted Vietnam chronicle "Dispatches," a practice that reached its nadir in Gail Sheehy's New York magazine account of Manhattan prostitution, which Weingarten says fatally wounded New Journalism's credibility. (I did enjoy Sheehy's memoirs, in which she defends her articles, shepherded by her husband, New York magazine editor Clay Felker, a major figure in Weingarten's book).
Eroding of confidence
The book leaves a weary sadness. While New Journalism was lauded by young would be counterculture heroes such as myself, Thompson, Wolfe, Herr and others contributed to a eroding of confidence in journalism.
Didion and Tom Wolfe wrote their pieces from a conservative perspective. Wolfe's notorious "Radical Chic" account of composer Leonard Bernstein's benefit for the Black Panthers severely wounded New York City's upper class liberalism.
Writing from a far-left perspective, Thompson, Mailer and others wanted to fix American injustices. Their heyday ended in a conservative era that culminated in the rise of Trump.