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READING THE RANGE

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Bommersbach is every bit as successful as Carlson at prompting writers to open up.

I sat down with Paul Perry's unauthorized biography of Hunter S. Thompson, a tumbler of whiskey and an evening full of expectations. By two in the morning, I wanted to pitch the book into the fireplace. How could the gonzo journalist's life be rendered as flaccid as George Bush after an all-night toot?

Speaking of his book Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson, Perry confides to Bommersbach during the May 29 broadcast that his instincts are essentially those of a censor.

Perry at one time edited Running magazine, then a cutting-edge monthly whose hip owners at Nike adopted as a goal the publication of the once-seminal, but long-since-burned-out husks Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson. Finding himself in Hawaii covering a marathon for Running, Uncle Duke sent back a dispatch brimming with racial descriptions which the sensitive Democrat, Perry, promptly edited out of the manuscript. Ignore for a second that Hawaii is the most racially stratified state in America, where the only thing lower than a Filipino cane cutter is a Howli, islander slang used to denigrate whites. Instead, picture someone dry-cleaning Hunter Thompson's prose to make it politically correct. You begin to sense why Perry was the wrong man for this biography.

These suspicions are confirmed when Perry tells Bommersbach that he censored the preface to his very own book because it was "too negative."

Perry believes he uncovered evidence that the man who defined Richard Nixon for a generation of Americans is, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson himself, "brain damaged."

Citing Thompson's homecoming reunion in Kentucky, as well as a recent film documentary, Perry alleges that Thompson's speech has become unintelligible as a result of titanic substance abuse.

But Perry couldn't bring himself to include this information in his biography.
Well, Christ!
You can omit the astounding revelation that Hunter S. Thompson has turned into Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" poster child if, in fact, the gossip is just so much unfounded slop. But you can't suppress this fact or refuse to investigate the allegations because just thinking about the possibility turns your gizzards into tapioca.

The most riotous segment of Books & Co. taped to date is the May 1 show, featuring Bommersbach and her former colleague at New Times, Deborah Laake.

These two women were not destined for intimacy.
When you telephone Bommersbach these days, her answering machine declares: "Hi. This is Jana. God only knows where I am right now . . . and she's not telling."

So you can imagine the reaction of this chain-smoking feminist in 1981 when a skeptical Laake, fresh to the newspaper, asked Bommersbach at their first lunch if Jana really expected equality with men.

The moment is more poignant when you know Laake's secret: She was only six weeks out of a mental institution when the two women broke bread. By then Laake had already begun the incredible journey that would culminate in her just-published book Secret Ceremonies: A Mormon Woman's Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond.

Laake charts our culture's murkiest depths, where pale-eyed women are suspended in tidal surges of religious subservience. And yet there is nothing dreary in her tale. Her vision is hopeful, life-affirming. Laake does not distill her insight into a clumsy, wood-burned plaque engraved with rhetoric from astringent libbers. Her book is as textured and layered as life itself.

Laake's literary achievement is neither esoteric nor precious; in fact, the book is propelled by raucous revelations: the Mormon church's most secret ceremonies; details about her marriages that will make her ex-husbands whistle long and low; and, yes, the masturbation scene.

The book's disturbing portrayal of the something-less-than-human men who were the Mormon bishops in Laake's life, as well as her frank depiction of the Temple's ritualistic voodoo, is already causing an outcry.

In Salt Lake City, where her book first appeared in condensed form in Cosmopolitan magazine, the Mormon faithful are already jumping out of windows and using cellular phones to call and complain to radio talk-show hosts before corkscrewing into the pavement.

In Phoenix, the church hierarchy has initiated excommunication proceedings against Laake.

It must all be enormously satisfying, or so one would gather watching Laake and Bommersbach quip their way through the show.

Today, Jana and Deborah are infamous equals who enjoy each other enormously. In the broadcast, they just put their hands on their hips and wag their tongues at each other.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey