Like approximately two billion other restless young men with a facility for language, I adopted Hunter S. Thompson as my personal hero in high school. There is no doubt in my mind that the man was a Genius (HST liked to capitalize random words, too.) He had a singular talent for putting specific words in a specific order to maximum effect. This is no mean feat. He had a gift; an intuitive sense for the English language that cannot be learned, cannot be dissected, and cannot (I found out the hard way) be aped.
The good doctor also had a reputation for excess with drugs and booze, and that’s understating the matter. His legacy, as an author and a pop culture icon, is forever linked with this aspect of his life, for good or for ill. He ran with the idea that getting high could be a lifestyle; that choosing to jam your head with any and all chemicals was a legitimate approach to existence in These Foul Years.
Thompson taught me everything I think I know about savagery and beauty and freedom in extemporaneous writing. He taught me that there are many fools out there, and that they will try to kill your spirit. He was a master of style and tone in cultural criticism, and he did not apologize. Ever. Hunter in the pantheon. He’s having a mint julep right now with Mark Twain. Guaranteed.
CNN.com reports: “On February 20, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson took his life with a gunshot to the head at his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado,” said a statement issued by Thompson’s son, Juan Thompson, to the Aspen Daily News.
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When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
The first HST book I read was one of his more obscure mid-period ones, The Curse of Lono, published in 1983. It was kind of a lame-ass story, about going to Hawaii to cover a marathon and instead getting spun out and strung out with the local freaks. Typical of HST’s style at the time, the book was sloppy, meandering, and occasionally incandescent. (I have that perspective now, of course. At the time it was all brilliant, beginning to end.)
After that I read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 (1972). Then Hell’s Angels (1967). I came into Thompson ass-backwards, in what is probably the very worst way you can approach his output. His early stuff is too straight. His middle-period work is spotty and indulgent. His last few books—and his recent dispatches for Rolling Stone and ESPN.com—are basically incoherent.
But he did write one masterpiece, of course, and that is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. The book begins like this:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive ” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
So there you go. A juggernaut of a first line, and the rest of the book just gets better. This was HST at his peak, writing in that sublime place just after the drugs kick in, and just before the horror show starts—a cockeyed lucidity that he managed to maintain for about 200 pages. Thompson never again shined so brightly.
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And now he’s dead, having shot himself in the head with one of the many guns he kept around for Bad Craziness. Ah, hell. One of Thompson’s most famous quotes is: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
If you say so, Doc.
You know, even after I got sober a few years ago, I always pulled for Thompson—the one guy who took drugs and alcohol to the extreme, proclaimed it a “lifestyle,” and made it work. It’s a tough day, and I am thinking to myself: That shit will get you, one way or another. It always wins.
OK, HST. Rest in peace.