[23 September 2009]
“I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger ... a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.”
—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
1. Eulogizing the Buffalo
This assignment—to eulogize the late, great Dr. Hunter S. Thompson—has proven difficult to complete. My original pitch—written in a caffeine and nicotine induced fit of inspiration and weirdness coupled with a series twisted late night moments of nearly blind and insane idol worship—promised an essay that would serve to document my reaction to Hunter S. Thompson’s 2005 suicide and contextualize what I described as the phenomena of “Being Thompson” in Western pop culture by comparing such to a similar phenomena that swept across Europe in the wake of the great English Romantic poet Lord Byron’s death in the 1820s. My goal was (and I suppose still is) to explore the tremendous influence Thompson had on Western culture. I wanted to offer a piece that would pay Thompson the sort of tribute and respect that he deserves. However, like most noble endeavors, this proved to be far easier said than done.
After all, my investment in my subject was, to say the least, substantial for I’d spent the better part of my life engaged in some fashion or other with Thompson. He was a writer who I admired, dismissed, combated, and loved, often all at the same time. Thompson was the first writer who made me fall in love with the idea of becoming a writer. Over time, I entered in something of a mentorship under the auspice of Thompson’s writings. He taught me the ways I could do the job well and the ways that I should never even think about doing the job. He was—is?—a writer whose death I deeply felt, even more so than the passing of many of my friends and family members. He was—I’m still feeling the itch to write “is” here—among the most important literary figures of the 20th century, a political and philosophical visionary who completely reformulated the ways in which we can (and should) conceptualize our world.
He was the sort of writer who never came across a “rule” he didn’t wish to break, a line he couldn’t help but cross, or an idea or social norm he wouldn’t challenge and mock. He was an iconoclast and a pop culture icon who was both impersonated and mocked (just take a look at Uncle Duke in The Doonesbury cartoon, a caricature that pissed Thompson off to no end, or some of Bill Buckley’s comments on Thompson), a figure of tremendous controversy who was viewed as genius and revolutionary and also as a junky and degenerate. He was a madman and at the same time perhaps the single most thoughtful and attuned critic of the American Dream the country ever had. He was the most honest writer in the American cannon and also its greatest bullshit artist. He was—man, I’m still writing “is”!—a man very much of his time, a writer engaged directly with his immediate world and mutually a man out of time, a throwback to the now-long-lost era of great men of letters, a virtual Byronic Romantic. He was one of America’s finest journalist and also among America’s most cutting satirical novelist. He was a man of countless contradictions: one half southern gentleman, one half raving maniac; one half reclusive writer, one half publicity hound; one half sinner, one half saint. As I went to work on this essay, I quickly discovered that pinning down Hunter S. Thompson and formulating some sort of reasonable critical approach to his work and life was a dangerous and perhaps even impossible enterprise.
You see, the more I thought about Thompson, the more my understanding of him collapsed, sucked into the great black hole of his genius and myth and my own complicated relation to such. It became apparent to me that this task required a different approach than the one I was taking. I remember saying to my wife—with admittedly strong echoes of Thompson in my voice—“this damn thing needs a different take, I can’t seem to get my arms around this fucking mess!” She sighed and said, “here we go.” I said “I need to take this piece on the same way Hunter would, I gotta crawl into this mess and dig my way out.” She said, “Are you putting on those khaki shorts and stupid tropical shirts again?” I said “Woah, woah, those are the kinds of pieces Hunter would wear to work.” She shook her head, and I said, “C’mon now, I need you on this one with me! This isn’t the usual business here! I’m writing about Hunter for Christ’s sake, not some dead motherfucker no one cares about anymore. This is Hunter we’re talking about! I’ve got a deadline coming and I’m stuck—I have to get this thing done and get it done right.”
She’d been around this sort of pre-deadline weirdness for long enough and knew what I needed to hear. “Then do as your pal Hunter would do then. This is what you want me to say, isn’t it?” she said. “You want me to tell you to do this thing as he would so go ahead.” I then said, “All I have are notes—it’s fragmented and all over the place. The best I can do is string it all together Thompson style, you know, give it a strong narrative hook and just offer my ideas along the way. You know, make the whole piece electric and self-aware in order to make up for my lack of focus.” “Then go to it, then” she said. That, however, was far easier said than done. So what I offer then is what might seem to be a strange, fragmented, and relatively incomplete piece that approaches my relationship to Thompson and his legacy from a few different directions. To offer something else, I realized, would not be in the gonzo spirit and would somehow violate the essence of Thompson and all that he had taught me. Plus, my deadline is looming, and I have to send something out before my editor kicks me to the proverbial curb and my efforts thus far prove wasted.
2. The Way of the Gonzo
I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the first time during the summer of 1992. I was 13 years old and the novel—can you even call it a novel?—hit me like a brick between the eyes. The book, for all of its thunder, bravado, and craziness, completely shifted my consciousness and sense of what literature could be and what a true writer was. I had spent the two previous years devouring the great cannon of modern American literature. I read a good chunk of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Mailer, and many of the other greats, but none of them appealed to me in quite the same way that Thompson did. Thompson’s words seemed to burn across the page; his writing was fast and electric, his voice distinct and engaging. He didn’t bury himself within his story, but instead placed himself at the very forefront, staring his readers square in the eye and digging his way straight into their mind. He broke what I understood to be every single rule of proper writing. He rambled and cursed and digressed, all the while keeping the action moving at a breakneck and almost nauseating clip. And with that book, Thompson set the standard of what I thought a writer should be: deranged, crazy, high, restless, violent, angry, and particularly aware. He didn’t just live on the edge—he redefined what the edge was and then threw himself off it without a parachute. A true writer, Thompson taught me, didn’t hide behind a pen or keyboard, but lived out there in the world and engaged it on his own terms without mercy or apology.
And what Thompson did was exactly what I wanted to grow up to do. I wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson when I grew up. However, once I was finished with college and turned to the ivory tower and joined the academy, I went and dropped him like an old toy. I came to regard him in the same manner I did many of my college friends: as someone I should avoid, as someone I had outgrown no matter how much fun he was. Those are words I write with a heavy heart and a very strong sense of guilt. When Thompson shot himself in the head on February 25, 2005, I was in the midst of completing my first year in graduate school at the University of Florida. I was studying 19th century English literature and teaching freshman composition. My life was balanced and reasonable. I was keeping a datebook and a study plan and sleeping seven or eight hours a night. I wore a blazer when I was teaching, checked my e-mail and voicemail every few hours, barely drank, and ate three square meals a day. I was studying books of literary theory and old Romantic and Victorian novels and short stories that no one even bothered to read anymore. I diligently attended seminars and wrote high-end literary criticism that explored things like gender roles and the function of space and place in Romantic novels. I was, you might say, a professional academic who was too old to play gonzo.
And then Thompson shot himself.
And in the weeks following his death, as the eulogies piled high and the good doctor was transformed from cultural icon to a sort of cultural effigy, I found myself returning to him again. During one foreboding night a month or two after Thompson’s suicide, I found myself revising a term paper draft for what must have been the fifth time. In a moment of strange clarity, I looked down at the piece I was writing—filled as it was with references to continental philosophers and literary theorists and written in a boring, dry, and decidedly academic tone—and said aloud to myself, “What the fuck are you doing, man?” I had just reread Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt, works that made my critical examination of whatever the hell I was writing about seem dead, pointless, and worse yet, boring.
I was sickened. I was a fucking hack. I was coasting off the work of others who were, by and large, themselves hijacking the works of others. If Thompson could see this, he’d throw something at me or maybe even take a shot at my center mass. And with this, I came to realize one very particular and vital aspect of Thompson’s legacy: he made everything anyone else said or thought seem trite, boring, and phony. If you can say anything about the man’s thought process and writings, it’s that he was always original, always in touch, and always engaging.
I remember sitting there that night with Thompson looming large over me, feeling as if I was a piece of shit and that my work pointless. And I laughed. This, I remember thinking, was what the bastard does to you. He makes everything else you read, write, or think seem trite, tired, and senseless in comparison to his own words and ideas.
3. Being Thompson
All of the fanfare surrounding Thompson’s death reminded me of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the English Romantic poet Lord Byron’s death in 1824. When Byron died, he was not only the most famous writer in the world but also one of the biggest celebrities in the West. Despite his own position as an aristocrat, as someone ultimately removed from the plights and realities of commoners and the downtrodden, common readers throughout England and many parts of Europe admired and even worshipped Byron. They saw him as an advocate on their behalf, as an iconoclast and revolutionary, as a writer and public figure in touch with their own feelings and circumstances.
In the years leading up to and following Byron’s death, a number of Europeans adopted something of a Byronic pose, imitating the poet’s own style and manner, both in their writing as well as in their fashion and speech. They did so, of course, for the purpose of their own advancement, for the persona of Byron was a form of social capital and hence a means of attaining clout and power over the members of the public that so admired Byron. A number of my college friends and I did the same thing with Thompson. We purposefully dressed like him, acted like him, wrote like him, and even spoke like him. We did so in order to test the waters as writers and thinkers and also to capture the unique cultural position of Thompson. By being Thompson we were able to establish a unique position out of and away from the mainstream, to stand off from everyone else and honestly meet the kind of girls who were impressed by that sort of mad, bad, and dangerous to know personality that Thompson offered, not to mention excuse our own use and abuse of controlled substances.
As was the case with Byron, acting like Hunter S. Thompson allowed us access to a unique form of social capital, with which we could engage in a number of different social markets. As with Byron, Thompson’s personality and social position serves as the man’s greatest legacy. Both Byron and Thompson cultivated public personalities that were designed to appeal to their audiences. Both carved out positions in the public consciousness that served to not only grant them a certain measure of attention, respect and artistic freedom, but to also provide a space which their descendants could occupy in order to promote their own ideologies, for better or worse. Like Byron, Thompson cast a mold that others could not only encase themselves in, but also modify to their own ends. In this respect, Thompson was a trailblazer, a revolutionary, someone who provided many of us with a position from which we could pronounce our own accounts of the weirdness, danger, and horror of our circumstances and observations. And for that alone, we owe Thompson our eternal gratitude.
4. The Doctor is Dead, Long Live the Doctor!
We’ll never know for sure what went through Thompson’s head before he sent a bullet slamming and burning into it. We can suppose that he felt himself to be at the end of his career, that he was depressed by his declining health, or that he felt that had lost his famous edge. But all of that is mere speculation. All we can do really is accept and respect his decision. After all, he always suggested that he would end his life on his own terms when he felt that the time came. I can accept this, but still the image of Thompson sitting at his desk with his brains blown out still haunts me.
For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why this bothered me so much. I’d never met the poor bastard. We’d never shared a conversation or a beer. All that I really knew of him was his work and myth. But still, the image of him sitting alone and turning a gun on himself lingers in my mind. When I think about Thompson, I often return to the epigram to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a line that he took from Samuel Johnson:
“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
In many ways, I think these lines say more about Thompson than anything he himself wrote. At the core of Thompson—beneath the dark humor and all of the Strum and Drang of his writing and his life and all the hyperbole and self-myth making—was a man who felt tremendously and deeply. And what he felt most immediately and directly was pain. If Thompson suffered from anything, it was not insanity, egomania, or drug addiction, but rather from an acute awareness of the horrors of the world, of all the hypocrisy and bullshit behind the American dream, of all that was possible in man and also all that was lost, of all that America—a country he both loved and loathed—was ultimately capable and fundamentally incapable of being, and of his own strengths and weaknesses.
At the end of the day Thompson was fundamentally incapable of bullshitting himself. He was just too smart and too tuned into what was going on in and around himself. And in the end, it proved too much for him, hence the bullet he put in his head. I suppose that’s what my heartbreak is owed to, the fact that he couldn’t take it and that his only way out—his only chance at peace—was death. He suffered for us for many years, and in the end, he died for us and because of us. Something about that just seems incredibly wrong to me. I’m by no means a faithful sort or a believer in any sort of afterlife. But for Christ’s sake, if Thompson is out there somewhere, I hope he’s in peace. He deserves that much.