Robert Fulford's column about Robert Hunter

(The National Post, September 25, 2001)

You can blame the political / sexual troubles of Robert Hunter on his place in the stream of history. If he were not a tattered survivor of the 1960s (as he once put it), then that nasty business about child prostitution might not have arisen last week to plague his campaign as Liberal candidate for the provincial legislature in the Toronto Beaches-East York by-election.

Hunter was in his twenties during the 1960s. Reflecting the radical consciousness of his generation, he became the first reporter to wear blue jeans in the Vancouver Sun newsroom, a moral triumph of the day. His Sun column espoused peace, love and many hippie opinions no longer remembered even by those who once held them. His colleagues were proud. Allan Fotheringham boasted the Sun was the only paper in Canada that would tolerate such an original columnist.

Hunter helped found Greenpeace but fell out with its leaders. As a reporter he began to practise the New Journalism, a 1960s challenge to traditional non-fiction. New Journalism used personal experiences of journalists and deployed the narrative techniques of fiction. Truman Capote's best-seller In Cold Blood read like a well-crafted novel yet contained (Capote said) nothing but facts.

Later it developed that Capote had creatively enhanced reality. Critics said the same about Tom Wolfe, who seemed to invent much of his material. Hunter S. Thompson used obvious fantasy. Readers were expected to sense all this without being told, though Thompson called his work "gonzo journalism," which apparently meant "anything goes." After a while, it was clear the New Journalism had brought with it a new rule: This stuff is true except when it isn't.

In 1988, when McClelland and Stewart published Hunter's rather limp collection of travel pieces, no one imagined that 13 years later people would be arguing about whether it was gonzo journalism, New Journalism, fiction or fact. Hunter called it On the Sky: Zen and the Art of International Freeloading, a doubly borrowed title designed to recall two famous books, On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig.

Hunter, as narrator, boasts in standard post-Beat prose about enjoying free international travel as the guest of airlines, hotels and tourist offices. He and a male friend visit Pat Pong, the Bangkok prostitution district, partly so Hunter can try (his wife back in Canada having granted permission) "a Siamese sandwich," meaning a woman on either side. "All men dream of such a scene, I believe," Hunter writes -- a weird projection. (Some would consider it a nightmare.) Hunter spends 10 days in Pat Pong, "the world's greatest fleshpot," making the most of it. The many females he enjoys (at one point he has three) are "nearer to children than women ..."

Hard as this is to believe now, in 1988 it was still just possible, in some circles, to consider a taste for Oriental child prostitutes merely quirky. Hunter, describing what he claims in the book are his experiences, seems both ashamed and exultant. He hates to imagine what the Thais think of the way he's using their "children" (his word), but on the other hand he's experiencing real life, "an Oriental porn dream come true."

On the Sky is now so out of print that even McClelland and Stewart claims not to possess a single copy of it. But last week it suddenly returned from the dead. Hunter (who now works in local TV news in Toronto) was close to the end of his election campaign when the NDP dug up some of those Bangkok pages and faxed them to journalists. After quotations appeared in print, Hunter announced at a news conference that he was suing the NDP for libel. It was an unforgettable moment in literary history, the first case ever of a writer suing someone for publicizing his book.

Hunter announced that the stories about child prostitutes were actually invented. He now said he didn't do what he said he did. It was satire, it was fictionalized, and the NDP and the newspapers were too dumb to notice.

William French was also too dumb, apparently, because his 835-word, mostly unenthusiastic review in The Globe and Mail, back in 1988, didn't suggest that even a syllable of the book was untrue. The Toronto Public Library system was so dumb it classified the book under Travel, and the University of Toronto library made the gross error of listing it under Adventure rather than guessing it was fiction. On Saturday in the Globe, Fotheringham said the book was a "novel," a term never applied to it before, even by Hunter.

The dumbest person of all must have been the McClelland and Stewart employee who wrote a big-type line on the dust jacket: "The Ultimate Escape Fantasy -- And It's All True!"

What about the publisher? On the Sky appeared under a special imprint with a distinguishing typographical symbol -- [A DOUGLAS GIBSON BOOK]. On Friday, I phoned Gibson.

Q: "When you published On the Sky, did you think it was true?"

A: "Well, the flap copy says ..."

Q: "No, what did you yourself think?"

A: "Just a minute, I'll get to that. The flap copy draws comparisons to Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. It was gonzo journalism -- there was hyperbole in it."

Q: "But did you think it was true?"

A: "Well, I would have to say that only Bob Hunter could answer that."

When the votes were counted Thursday night, Michael Prue had beaten Hunter and retained the seat for the NDP. But if Hunter lost the election, he didn't lose the support of all his peers. At his press conference he was supported by Barbara Gowdy, the novelist, who claimed the NDP was attacking free speech and failed to understand how literature works.

"You are not your characters," she instructed us. "I wrote a book about elephants. I'm not an elephant." Noted. She also said, "Any child could tell you that A.A. Milne is not Winnie the Pooh." Absolutely. But if that book were written by a bear in the first person, and if the same bear ran for election in Beaches-East York, well, then, nasty questions might be raised.

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