“I hate writing. It’s pure hell and I wish I didn’t have to do it.” - Hunter S. Thompson, 1978
Much has been written about Hunter S. Thompson, the man and the myth. Most of it, of course, was written by Thompson himself. But since his death in 2005, a spate of books has been published by colleagues, friends and family, giving various views on Thompson’s life, each exposing parts of the myth all the while adding to it. Some, such as The Joke’s Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson, and Me by British artist and Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman, provide an episodic timeline detailing crazy encounters and drug-fueled escapades over the course of their 35 year friendship. Other books, like William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist delve into Thompson’s considerable literary legacy and his cultural impact on an era.
With Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance, Jay Cowan blends the personal stories with the professional insights to create a more complete picture of the person and, particularly, the writer, behind Thompson’s “Rock Star Journalist” persona. Cowan, who lived on Thompson’s Owl Farm during the 70s and 80s and often filled the role of personal assistant, caretaker and confidante, first discovered Thompson’s writing through the Letters to the Editor in the Aspen Times. He was impressed by the sarcasm, sharp wit, dark comedy and considerable knowledge apparent amidst the surface absurdity of some of Thompson’s missives.
Cowan became acquainted with Thompson during his infamous run for sheriff in 1968. That’s essentially where his tales of life with the good Doctor begin, but Hunter S. Thompson isn’t just a chronological carnival ride through the Freak Power funhouse. Sure there are plenty of fantastic stories of drink and drugs, of woman and weaponry. We get lots of lawyers, guns and money (or, to hear Thompson tell it, lack thereof), but it’s all framed around the writing. The word is king.
And that’s where this book really distinguishes itself. It’s well known that Thompson had copies of literally everything he wrote going back decades, and Cowan obviously has his own archives as well. The sheer volume of kept correspondence is staggering. Pulling examples from Thompson’s published work and personal letters, as well as from editorial notes on his own and Cowan’s writings, and notes stuck on Cowan’s door in the middle of the night, Hunter S. Thompson provides an intimate glimpse behind the characters and the caricature Thompson created. It goes beyond Gonzo to present a portrait of Thompson the writer, a window into his primary creative process.
Because Cowan is also a writer (He’s currently Editor-in Chief of Aspen Sojourner magazine and has published hundreds of articles in several other publications.), and because his career began around the same time as his friendship with Thompson, he is uniquely qualified to comment on the effect of Hunter S. Thompson on journalism, aspiring writers, writing at large and life in general. As the subtitle states, it’s the insider’s view that makes this such a compelling read. You really get a sense of the immediacy and intimacy of the information.
There are two pieces of advice Thompson gave Cowan in Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance that stand out, in particular. The first, given in response to a rejected story of Cowan’s about the collapse of oil shale enterprises in Colorado, was to always try and find at least “one human example.” It’s a basic, but important, point for any writer and Cowan has certainly succeeded here, using himself as the ultimate example while also putting a human face on Thompson’s legend.
The second bit of advice involves firearms, but could easily be applied to all sorts of other situations in life. “Always clear the chamber before you give it to someone,” grinned Thompson as he took Cowan’s .45 semi-automatic, “…Then you’re not handing some crazy fucker a loaded gun.”
Words to live by.