Well it’s Kentucky Derby season, and for me, that means getting out of town (I live in Louisville) and rereading the most classic piece of literature about the Derby, Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. If you don’t know anything about the Derby, I’ll tell that it’s about three weeks of lead up events and three whole days of debauchery, violent drunkenness, partying, and insanity. Oh yeah, and there’s a two minute horse race. Most people forget about that. Really though, the Kentucky Derby is a chance for people in Louisville, and everywhere within a thousand miles, to dress up in their finest clothes and get stupid drunk while throwing their money away on the races. It’s wild, crude, weird, and quite frankly a little ridiculous.
Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist and novelist who’s writings created a whole new blend of fictive journalism called “Gonzo Journalism”. It’s a highly subjective form of journalism that puts the writer in the center of the story, not just as a fly on the wall observer, and blurs the line between fiction and reality. Thompson perfected this style with his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his writings on Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972. Despite dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2005, Thompson’s influence has continued to grow to the point where he is widely regarded not only as a Louisville hometown hero, but as a significant contributor to 20th century American literature.
“Written under duress” in 1970, Decadent and Depraved is widely considered to be Thompson’s first piece of true “Gonzo Journalism”. It takes place over the two days leading up to the Derby and then the day of the race itself. It is a rambling narrative of madness, booze, and if I may be so bold, decadence and depravity. But really what the piece does better than anything else before or since is give a full view of the true nature of the Kentucky Derby. Thompson doesn’t even cover the race. There are maybe a total of eight sentences in fifteen pages about the actual race. This is not a sports writing piece. What it does better than anything else is give the true spirit, not only of the Derby, but of Louisville itself. Granted a few things have changed since 1970, but for the most part the descriptions and depictions ring just as true today as they did nearly fifty years ago.
The text begins with Hunter arriving at the Louisville airport and meeting another excited Derby-goer in from Texas. His excitement for the depravity of the event foreshadows the wild nature of the track and Derby day itself. Hunter doesn’t like his wild enthusiasm and scares him with a story about Black Panther riots and 20,000 National Guardsmen because, “Anybody who wanders around the world saying, ‘Hell yes, I’m from Texas,’ deserves whatever happens to him”. Hunter’s vitriolic and sardonic wit pervade through the entire work.
Hunter then tries to find his English illustrator, Ralph Steadman, who would come to work with Hunter repeatedly in the future. Hunter gives a full indictment of Louisville and the Derby scene, “Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place.” Louisville’s weirdest son calling us weird. I’ve never been prouder to be from Louisville.
Hunter and Steadman have to find their way into the Derby since Hunter didn’t get press passes by the required cut-off months prior. Hunter frequently considers using his can of mace that he “had picked up…in a downtown drugstore for $5.98 and suddenly, in the midst of that phone talk, I was struck by the hideous possibilities of using it out at the track. Macing ushers at the narrow gates to the clubhouse inner sanctum, then slipping quickly inside, firing a huge load of Mace into the governor’s box, just as the race starts. Or Macing helpless drunks in the clubhouse restroom, for their own good…” Like I said, violent drunkenness.
Their ultimate plan is not to cover the race but to profile the quintessential Derby goer. “It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry–a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture…a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”
After days of drinking and freaking out and macing and pissing off locals, a “vicious drunken nightmare“, Hunter and Steadman finish their story in the cheap hotel they were staying, with Hunter finding that the perfect face to fit his idea of the Derby was, in fact, his own, “a model for that one special face we’d been looking for. There he was, by God–a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature…like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for–and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible…” Just don’t tell Hunter that, because the story ends with him macing the shit out of Steadman for making that plain to him and in the end, Hunter has reverted back to a full native despite the years he had been gone, “Bug off, you worthless faggot! You twisted pigfucker! [Crazed laughter.] If I weren’t sick I’d kick your ass all the way to Bowling Green–you scumsucking foreign geek. Mace is too good for you…We can do without your kind in Kentucky.”
In all, the piece best captures the TRUE spirit of the Derby. The spirit that the mayor and city council might not be too keen on you knowing. It doesn’t talk about the clothes or the horses or the hats or the celebrities but rather the true reality for the common Derby-goer. It tells of the drunkenness and wild debauchery that goes on. “Just pretend you’re visiting a huge outdoor loony bin”, “fifty thousand [people] or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene–thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We’ll have to spend some time out there, but it’s hard to move around, too many bodies“.
It’s a great piece. Read it, and if you ever want to really experience it, go to the Derby. The only way I can properly end this is to give you Hunter’s depiction of the wildest part of the Kentucky Derby, the Infield at Churchill Downs,
“Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up.”
Link to The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved: http://brianb.freeshell.org/a/kddd.pdf
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