Like so much of his writing, Hunter S. Thompson’s life veered the treacherous curves of the American landscape with a reckless aplomb, churning up the cultural asphalt and leaving behind only scattered remnants of the American Dream that so much of his work sought. He was a Red America nightmare, locked-and-loaded, armed-and-dangerous, a tempest of debauchery, an excavator of the murky political landscape, a wordy foot soldier who shed his armor (but not his armaments) and fled into the breach, striking the very heart of the bombastic swine corrupting our government while simultaneously letting loose a salvo across the bow of the mainstream press still echoing today.
Those reverberations first found me in college during my freshman year in the early 90s as I tore through the university’s library and its darkened stacks, yanking New Journalism tomes off the shelf and digging my greedy nails into their covers, drinking the contents as if I had stumbled thirsty out of an unenlightened desert and come face-to-face with a water canon. I was floored. Could journalism really be like this? Could you take the subject by the balls and squeeze until the truth bubbled to the top? Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Joan Didion I had read in high school, plying through their masterworks, but somehow Hunter Thompson’s genius had generally remained slightly outside my periphery. Until a single sentence: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
Turning back was not an option after that, not from Gonzo, not from this brazenly hedonistic truth teller who lit up the language with rolling and thunderous joy. That Gonzo was an extraordinarily attuned term is an understatement, picked from a letter written to him, Thompson found an idea that embodied everything he was and would become. Under this banner the good Doctor wielded a scalpel and gutted the journalist canon like he had been partially reborn as a marauding Mark Twain with the limbs of Menken and the voracious gluttony of Hemingway. Equipped with a cabinet full of liquor and “mobile police narcotics lab,” Thompson crafted a mutated volume of cultural muckraking extolling the savagery of a trip taken into a fiery epicenter of the American Dream. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fuses novel and reportage, forming an abrasively genuine and authentic testament teaming with more truth in its drug-infested trumped-up realities than an entire year of newspapers and magazines. Thompson had created something exceedingly lurid and depraved that inexplicably billowed with hysterical optimism.
When I finished Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a whole new language opened up to me, a dialect of truth molded by a would-be novelist turned reporter, who tossed fact and fiction into the ethos and whatever stuck, stuck. Did it really matter which bits were factual, and which had been gleaned from hazily medicated memories? What difference did it make what was real, Thompson had uncloaked the machine and tossed himself under the bus, helping slow the whole vehicle down, and still managed to come out alright. He was the progeny of Upton Sinclair and the Beats, spreading blistering sermons from the kill zone of an insidiously darkened age, the time of Vietnam, of Nixon, of betrayed hope. Thompson’s anger burned like a laser shot, hitting its trajectories on cue, slicing open the establishment as never before.
His earliest works, Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 constitute a burst of sonic literature that has endured the slithering test of time. That he was influential is not debatable. His books are part of the Modern Library, he has been portrayed in film by Bill Murray and Johnny Depp, and his work is still required reading in journalism classes across the nation. I see Hunter S. Thompson’s footprint everywhere, in the bitter irony of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in the burgeoning political blog movement and most dreadfully in the soulless talking head punditry of modern media that has neither the stomach or talent to seek answers and impart truths. That Thompson sought answers and conveyed truth in his work is a marked achievement often crushed under the weight of his own persona and reputation.
The gun-slinging, drunk and dope-addled harbinger-of-sorrows image that Thompson himself assisted in forming became a caricature that belittled the sincere heft of what he had to say, but he continued the good fight, never betraying the idealism that so many of his contemporaries had ditched for publisher lunches and cocktail parties. Although the antics had grown to be the attraction, Thompson continued firing missives into the ether. Through the past few decades his pieces and collections meandered with hit-and-miss lunges at Bush, Clinton and lately another Bush, as well as his eternal hatred of Richard Nixon, even in death. Over the last several years, his pieces for Rolling Stone and his column for ESPN.com have brimmed with paranoia and humor, sadness and anger. What the later pieces lacked was immediacy, the hunt he so often vaunted into with gusto was now viewed afar; he was perched up high and straining through the binoculars to discern the shapes of the hunters and the hunted. The talent, though, never waned. The twisted turn of phrase and searing insight would never falter.
That Hunter S. Thompson’s death is apparently self-inflicted is expectantly unexpected, a sad and disappointing end to not only a breathing American literature objet d’art, but of a life. Unscrupulous morality zealots, who have made a pastime of trying to bury the Sixties, can now gleefully hammer another nail into the decade’s coffin, although the good Doctor himself had pronounced the same patient dead more than three decades ago saying, “with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” Well, with the right kind of eyes anybody can almost see the line drawn in the sand, a line that spoke volumes to the polity of this nation, and a man who wanted to smack some sense into it.