Tuesday, February 22, 2005
CHECK OUT TIME -- Dr. Hunter S. Thompson with Warren Zevon, not too long before Zevon's death. Thompson ended his own life Sunday.
Bedtime for Gonzo
I got a 38 Special up on the shelf,
I'll sleep when I'm dead.
If I start acting stupid I'll shoot myself,
I'll sleep when I'm dead
If you want to write an obituary of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, I figure, you'd better crank up some tunes by Warren Zevon, of which the iMac I'm writing this on has four glorious hours' worth. Zevon and Thompson were close pals, and they had everything in common: guns, big dogs, alcohol, dope, fast cars, and a talent for tempting death, which always takes the bait when you're not looking. Or when you are. Zevon died of cancer a couple years back. Thompson ended his own life Sunday.
Details, at press time, are sketchy, except that he used a gun -- no surprise there -- and that everyone is shocked and surprised for the same reason: given all the famous (if admittedly exaggerated) amounts of dope, alcohol, and nicotine he had survived over the years, death never seemed like much of an issue. Neither did suicide. "Kamikaze's not my style," he once said, casually recalling how he nearly blew up Nixon's press jet by smoking as the plane refueled. He was the Keith Richards of journalism. Or so it seemed.
Thompson was the first and foremost practitioner of the "Gonzo" stye of "New Journalism," a freely personal approach to reporting where the writer freely inserted himself into the story. Thompson took it to surreal dimensions. His mythic persona -- immortalized by Garry Trudeau as Doonesbury's "Uncle Duke" -- was that of a laid-back but somewhat paranoid hedonist: a balding hipster with shades and cigarette-holder, facing Straight America's latest assault on his personal freedom with a pack of Dobermans, a .44 Magnum, a Selectric typewriter, and a brain full of chemicals.
The result was a raw vision of Vietnam-era America that was over the top and abundantly clear. Thompson was a crazy man who saw the big picture, and the big picture only made him crazier.
Perhaps nowhere is this better expressed than in the two indisputable classics of his 12 books: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail `72.
The former is a drug-soaked trip to the Glitter Gulch accompanied by fellow renegade Oscar Acosta, a Chicano attorney.
The latter is one of the few campaign accounts of lasting interest, and a masterpiece of boiling Nixon-era rage. It's an elegy for the way the hopes of the 1960s turned into the "long hangover" of the 1970s, spawning "a whole subculture of frightened illiterates with no faith in anything." It's a bracing reminder of how little things change; you can't help but think of John Kerry as Thompson describes one sad-sack Democratic candidate after the next, all trying to pass themselves off as anti-war -- despite the fact that they were as responsible as anyone for keeping us in Vietnam.
For Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Thompson put his finger on everything that was fickle and false about American life.
"From this moment on," he wrote in his review, "let all those who feel that Americans can be as easily led to beauty as to ugliness, to truth as to public relations, to joy as to bitterness, be said to be suffering from Hunter Thompson's disease."
For writers who came of age in the 1970s, Thompson's influence is incalculable. Everyone wanted to write like him, especially anyone locked into the daily grind of who-what-when-where-why-and-how. Thompson's goal was to write "as close to the bone as I could get, and to hell with the consequences." If that meant calling Nixon a lying bastard or Hubert Humphrey a "treacherous, gutless old ward heeler who should be put in a goddam bottle and sent out with the Japanese current," so be it.
The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse's account of the press during the 1972 campaign, describes the reaction of the straight press to their wild compadre: "Thompson had the freedom to describe the campaign as he actually experienced it: the crummy hotels, the tedium of the press bus, the calculated lies of the press secretaries, the agony of writing about the campaign when it seemed dull and meaningless, the hopeless fatigue. When other reporters went home, their wives asked them, `What was it really like?' Thompson's wife knew from reading his pieces."
Thompson didn't fade from view in the years since his peak; there would still be the occasional rare piece in Rolling Stone, and there were his columns for ESPN Magazine. Bill Murray brilliantly portrayed him in a lousy movie called Where the Buffalo Roam, and Johnny Depp made an admirable attempt at playing him in Terry Gilliam's terrific 1996 adaptation of the Las Vegas book.
But Thompson was a man made for the Nixon era, and when Nixon was put out to pasture I think he took a little of Thompson with him. Thompson never again had a bête noire of that kind of intensity, someone whose sheer depth of paranoia matched his own. Thompson may have become a dependable loon in his last decades, but his best books are peerless reflections of their times.
Kurt Loder has the best, most insightful and intelligent piece on Thompson's passing.
Loder's lead really tells the tale: "In the 1970s, Hunter Thompson inspired a legion of young journalists to believe that the best way to cover a story was to get tanked to the gills on drugs and alcohol, present oneself in a state of near-psychotic meltdown at the scene of whatever one was covering, and record the affronted and sometimes violent reactions of the people one encountered."
I once nourished that same notion myself, only to discover -- as anyone with common sense could have told me -- that it doesn't bring you anywhere near the doors of perception. All you're going to get for your trouble is a legal pad full of lunatic ravings that will mock your desire to take the easy way out.
Of course, whether Thompson himself wrote the way he said he did is up to question. Maybe he did; maybe -- and what seems to me more likely -- he simply fell in love with the fictional version of himself that he fashioned for public consumption.
He always did want to be a novelist.