Scoop Review of Books

Mad Art

Editor’s Note: The original edition of The Curse of Lono was published 1983, but it went out of print. Taschen brought out a signed, limited collector’s re-edition almost around 2005, but sold out before it  hit the stores. The version reviewed here is a hardback in a smaller format than the collector’s edition. 

The Curse of Lono by Hunter S. Thompson; illustrated by Ralph Steadman (Taschen, $69.99)
Reviewed by Jim Robinson

CurseOfLonoThis large hard cover opens to one of the best title pages I’ve seen, The Curse of Lono by Hunter S Thompson and Ralph Steadman, all wild black ink scrawl and splatter, jumping off the thick white page. It’s in your face yet artfully presented, which is pretty much how the book carries on, with Steadman’s brilliant illustrations every bit as important as Thompson’s words, and ranging from mildly quirky to full bore weird.

What it’s all about, though, I’m not so clear on. One of the early pages carries a letter from Running Magazine: “Dear Hunter; To keep a potential screed down to a few lines, we would like you to cover the Honolulu Marathon. We will pay all expenses and an excellent fee … Think about it. This is a good chance for a vacation.”

Okay, that bit’s clear then. Thompson and Steadman go on a scam trip to Hawaii to cover the 1980 marathon (this is a release of an out-of-print book first published 1983). As Thompson says, “All we have to do in Honolulu is cover the marathon then hide out in Kona for a while and lash the story together.”

But beyond that, all is hallucinogenic weirdness. Drugs on planes and penguins and extended fishing trips and tuna and storms and Glenfiddich Scotch and dogs with virulent fleas and more marijuana and maybe I’m boring but try as I might I’m really not sure what on Earth it’s all about, even by Thompson’s Gonzo standards.

A quote on the cover — from The Independent — declares this “the oddball, an unclassifiable mix of fiction, reportage, mythologies and manic surrealism.” That’s pretty much on the nail.

Thompson even says it himself, writing to Steadman: “This is a weird story … it has been weird from the start and it becomes relentlessly weirder with every passing day.”

It seems some people love that. Past editions of this book have been snapped up as collector’s items. Personally, I find it overpowering. For me, the real pleasure in Thompson’s writing is when he comes back to normality — at which point he becomes outstanding. Take his writing on the marathon itself.

The front-runners were about thirty seconds behind us when we jumped off the still-moving radio van, and the sound of their shoes on wet asphalt was not much louder than the rain. There was no sound of hard rubber soles pounding and slapping on the street. That noise came later, when the Racers had passed and the first wave of Runners appeared.

The Racers ran smoothly, with a fine-tuned stride like a Winkel rotary engine. No wasted energy, no fighting the street or bouncing along like a jogger. These people flow, and they flow very fast.

The Runners are different. Very few of them flow, and not many run fast. And the slower they are, the more noise they make. By the time the four-digit numbers came by, the sound of the race was disturbingly loud and disorganized. The smooth rolling hiss of the Racers had degenerated into a hell broth of slapping and pounding feet.

He has similarly excellent passages on boats and weighing fish and storms and driving a car down from a volcano at a hundred miles an hour. No question, Thompson (who died 2005) could really write.

Consequently, I’ve got most pleasure from this book as a coffee-table dip-in. Flick through, enjoy the wonderfully reproduced art, read some satirical description or funny, sometimes manic, scenario. But forget about trying to follow plot or find a pleasing sense of cohesion.

“What kind of story are you really writing,” Thompson is asked near the end. I suspect he was wondering that himself.