Tom Folsom’s biography of Dennis Hopper has a conceptual-prose hook. Dropping the standard bio’s orderly alternation of sober reconstruction and anecdotal evidence, Hopper seeks to honor its subject’s outlaw panache with appropriately wild writing. Unfortunately, Folsom’s imitation-gonzo is a pallid, cliché-ridden imitation of Tom Wolfe at his most overheated. The opening introduces Hopper on a motorcycle “screaming as if stoked by hellfire.” “No earthly force could shake him from his steed, hot between his legs,” Folsom writes. There’s no natural rhythm in sentences like this, which aim for lurid pulp but fall into the flat realm of true-crime daytime-TV narration. (“The great Bel Air fire of ’61 roared up the canyon like a tsunami of flame.”)
Besides being a pain to read, the prose is murder on clarity. Folsom’s story is basically chronological, though many chapters start by recapping interviews progressively later in Hopper’s career, creating dual timelines that don’t illuminate anything in particular. Over the course of 300 pages, Folsom emphasizes a few notable flashes in an often-fallow career. Easy Rider, predictably, gets the most attention, while second place is awarded to James Dean’s lingering ghost. In Folsom’s telling, Hopper comes off as a psychopath with megalomaniacal delusions of drug-addled grandeur who never recovered from his brief time with Dean on the sets of Rebel Without A Cause and Giant.
Folsom is equally insistent on Hopper’s unpredictable genius and most unsavory moments (or decades). However strongly readers might feel about Hopper on a variety of fronts—as a countercultural icon whose Easy Rider has become a parody of itself, as an aspirant multi-hyphenate talent with art-world credibility, as a director beloved by a small-but-fierce fan base—Folsom’s biography is petty and unpleasant, painting an ugly picture of the man without compensatory insight as to why his work merits examination in the first place.
Even as a delivery system for anecdotes or revealing stories, Hopper is a failure, relying extensively on Folsom’s mediocre narrative skills rather than primary sources. The interviewees range throughout Hopper’s entire career but are largely unilluminating, as in five pages devoted to Peter Fonda talking about almost nothing (“he had such perception of art and form and substance that infused my entire life as an actor”). The stupendously messy Hopper fails to do justice to its subject, turning him into an excuse for sub-workshop sentences.