A Gonzo Eulogy for Hunter S. Thompson
Thirty-three years after Hunter S. Thompson took us on a trip to Las Vegas for the macabre funeral of the American Dream, he placed a well-aimed Colt .45 bullet in his brain, saying farewell in a typically loud fashion.
One of the big karmic jokes of it is that he did it when it was becoming clear that he’d been right all along, and now we really needed him. But by then he was old and tired, and he wasn’t able to be there anymore. He knew -- and had known for a long time -- what was coming, what we would soon find out. In “Football Season Is Over,” he wrote:
No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun -- for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax -- This won't hurt.
Thirty-three years after Hunter S. Thompson took us on a trip to Las Vegas for the macabre funeral of the American Dream, he placed a well-aimed Colt .45 bullet in his brain, saying farewell in a typically loud fashion. Four years later, the cracks in the national concrete are big enough for even the most deluded person to see, and it seems as though they’re spreading.
So. An essay on my dead hero and his dead American dream. How depressing. Must I make my second trip to the liquor store in eighteen hours? No -- Thompson, the siren-song of your Too-Much-Goddamn-Fun personality cult would leave me devastated on the rocks once again, you rat bastard, you perverted swine. I wish I had your gift for adjectives so my insults would ring as sweetly affectionate as yours did. I’ve been reading his books, listening to this ghost voice for weeks, counting down the years, the months, the weeks until the bullet’s in your head, the last great, twisted trip you took us on. But the deadline looms, and I wonder if, in order to do this thing any justice at all, I’ll need to get some Wild Turkey.
No -- too damn hot. That still, stagnant hot where you find flattened earthworms desiccated on the sidewalks. No -- sweat it out, then, and try to connect, and when the deadline comes, turn in something weird and maybe not completely accurate but true in some deeper, more universal way.
Let’s deal immediately with the question of bias. It’s true; I look up to the guy as a fellow writer. Yes, he was a criminal, a maniac, vulgar, quite rude, and often partied when he was supposed to be working, but he dared to tell what needed to be told, and did so with an electric, peppery tone that made even banal topics like sports management come alive -- Gonzo journalism. Given my interest in literature and writing, I find it strange now that I didn’t come across his work before I did, but looking back, it seems as though it happened at the perfect time, just a few months following my “political awakening.” Thompson often referred to his coverage of the Battle of Chicago race riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention as a turning point in his career and his life due to the brutalities he witnessed. And in 2004, I had a major epiphany during the DNC that I’ll now recount for its slightly Gonzo tone.
All week, my next door neighbor and I had been watching the convention on his TV, but for some reason when it came time for John Edwards to give his acceptance speech, I returned to my apartment and smoked some salvia. (Any day now I’m sure salvia is going to be more tightly scheduled, but in 2004, it was easier to get than the morning-after pill; you could buy it in head shops, at least in Indiana.) Suddenly, my friends were appearing and vanishing on the couch beside me. They’d fade in and out, all the while laughing and pointing. The average trip on salvia lasts only ten minutes, but there’s a frightening intensity to it, along with the sinking feeling that you’ll be trapped this way forever. I’d had waves of this the last time I’d smoked it; a vision of my body laying in an open grave, and this time it was too much. Panicked, I burst from the screen door of my apartment and into the night, blindly feeling my way along the bricks of the building. I repeatedly beat on my neighbor’s door, but just as my eyes were seeing only mirages, my ears were hearing only my own terrified inner monologue, missing his calls to come in. He finally had to come to the door and drag me inside.
“Dude,” I said, “I’m on salvia, and I’m freaking out.”
He planted me in front of the TV, a familiar place both physically and mentally, and we watched John Edwards give his acceptance speech. I don’t remember what he said, he was just another talking head that week, the most exciting speech of the convention, the one given by Obama, was already old news. Maybe it was the banality of Edwards’s speech that led me to my next jolt, or maybe it was the salvia. Equally likely -- he was as boring as the trip was nuts. Though it could have simply been the nature of the campaign that year.
I don’t know what caused the shift, but one way or another, within ten seconds, my sense of comfort was gone again. “Oh, man,” I said, staring at Edwards’s leathery Ken doll features bleeding together with all the red, white, and blue. The old TV set was not helping my tracers. “We’re gonna lose.”
“No way,” my neighbor said. “There’s no way this country is going to reelect Bush. By now, everyone knows how bad things are.”
“No, dude. We’re gonna lose. It’s gonna be bad.” I was certain, heartbroken, then, ten minutes later, the rest of the night, on election day, and through the rest of the winter. Up until that point, it had seemed ludicrous to suggest that Bush could be r-elected; the apparent impotency of the Kerry campaign hadn’t mattered, anything would be better than this. I was under the impression that everyone agreed Bush was an idiot who had badly fucked up at his job. But after that night, I was crushed with the foreknowledge that he would not be voted out, and things were about to get much worse.
Thompson’s friends point to the 2004 re-election of Bush as a catalyst for his suicide, but it can’t have surprised him that much. He’d seen it all before with Richard Nixon.
Tragically, I wouldn’t become aware of Hunter S. Thompson until the day after he shot himself, when my writing workshop professor read aloud an article he’d written on Nixon’s resignation. And then that same semester we covered Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in my 20th Century Lit class, where my tea-drinking, shawl-wearing professor from Essex screamed out passages that made the windows rattle. “Hey there! You folks want to buy some heroin? I just got back from Vietnam!” Since it was for a class, I had to read it quickly, but I’m sure I would have done so anyway. When the sun came out the year he died, I lay out in the grass behind my apartment and read Fear and Loathing cover to cover, sunburned and half-blind by the end. I heartily recommend these conditions for the consumption of Gonzo journalism.
That summer, every night, when the fireflies were out and the crickets were in full symphony, I’d come home from my job at the university library, position myself with my laptop between a fan and an open window, and try to write the great American novel until four a.m. with the glow of the screen as the only source of light. After a few hours of sleep, I’d go back to the library and read Thompson’s collected works at my desk. It would have been perfect had I not been taking a 19th Century Lit class for which I was supposed to be doing homework. But it didn’t matter, I’d found my hero. He showed me how to enjoy the private, semi-religious insanity that I’d previously feared from writing, made it breathtakingly exciting and fun.
But the more I attempted to copy him, be him, I found that he wasn’t imitatable, at least not for me. After too much physical and creative exhaustion, I resigned myself to the reality that it’s not true style if it’s not your own and then resumed the struggle to write as me, be me. And in any case, most of the topics covered in Thompson’s work are of little professional interest to me; outside of its metaphorical and historical connotations, I have little passion for sports, and I’m not smart enough to write intelligently about politics. I never lamented that I hadn’t written a specific piece of his the way I do with other authors (like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club; I’m pissed off that I didn’t write Fight Club). But I do like to think his influence remains in my admiration for his vibrant but easily understood vocabulary, his energy, above all his spirit of storytelling. Unfortunately, it also remains in my drinking, my procrastination, and my general lack of any idea of what the hell I’m trying to say in this goddamned thing here.
How could he be anything besides indelible? He was a collector of peacocks, and why not? He was a peacock with his brightly colored, incongruous wardrobe of visors, aviator sunglasses, ski jackets, and tiny shorts. That voice, too -- the constant smoking. Also, his unpredictability, partying, all those fast cars, sudden wild howling of impromptu sermons, flailing limbs. Raoul Duke. A Ralph Steadman drawing come to life. He was a creature who earned his reputation early on, and never stopped embellishing it. A favorite anecdote of mine about his life comes from an Air Force base news release:
Further investigation revealed that, only minutes before the incident ... a reportedly “fanatical” airman had received his separation papers and was rumored to have set out in the direction of the gatehouse at a high speed in a muffler-less car with no brakes. An immediate search was begun for Hunter S. Thompson, one-time sports editor of the base newspaper and well-known “morale-problem.” Thompson was known to have a sometimes overpowering affinity for wine, and was described by a recent arrival in the base sanatorium as “just the type of bastard who would do something like that.”
The fact that he was portrayed by Steadman’s portraits, two Hollywood actors, and about million college boys at Halloween parties within his lifetime is testament to his cultural imprint, but his infamy went beyond himself. Thompson changed the rules of journalism with Gonzo Journalism, “a style of reporting based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism -- and the best journalists have always known this.” “Nothing is fun when you have to do it,” he wrote:
Over and over again -- or else you’ll be evicted, and that gets old. So it’s a rare goddamn trip for a locked-in, rent-paying writer to get into a gig that, even in retrospect was a kinghell, highlife fuckaround from start to finish -- and then to get paid for writing this manic gibberish seems genuinely weird; like getting paid to kick Agnew in the balls.
My sympathies to his editors. He wrote what he wanted to; the assignment was just a jumping off point. If he was sent to write about the Kentucky Derby, he’d write about depraved men in white suits. If he was sent to write about the Mint 400, he’d write about the Death of the American Dream. If he was sent to write about Watergate, he’d write about gambling. Whether it was a personal need to not compromise his creative vision or simply the demands of a looming deadline after a night of drinking, his writing reflected the secret urge that haunted me through journalism school, to say, “Sorry boss, I wrote something interesting and important instead.” It wasn’t a new concept, but he gave it name. Somehow, with a lot of troublemaking, hallucinating, pretending, and general avoidance of convention, he still held up a reflection, albeit a distorted one. It’s as if twenty years before geeks were even discussing The Simpsons at LAN parties, Thompson was able to grasp the fluid and often tenuous definition of “truth” in modern journalism that would define much of the Internet in the new millennium. A football player who met Thompson while he was covering the 1973 Super Bowl said of him: “I’ve read all his stuff, and I know how he is; he’s a goddamn lunatic -- and you’ve got to be careful with a bastard like that, because no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t help but tell the truth.”
And yet within that truth, how much was costume and character? Those who knew Hunter S. Thompson paint him as the shy son of a librarian. It’s difficult to be shy when you’re so tall, and it’s difficult to be shy when you’re a reporter. Was the self-insertion in his stories an elaborate way for him to hide while he observed his subjects? Ralph Steadman wrote:
His bullshit was a wonderful aurora borealis of trepidation, failure, unnecessary hesitation and, something that no one but me knows, because he had previously confessed to me in one of those moments when all defenses are down, that to do what was expected of him, officially, professionally and at a precise moment sent him in paroxysms of fear such as he was only able to express in point blank denials of ever being involved in something in the first place.
It’s in details such as these where I myself most identifying with the man, that someone whose work I so admire could have suffered from self-doubt even while he was fighting a dragon. It spurs me to reach for his heights and face his depths as well. After all, Doug Wright, author of the play Quills, once said, “He’s been to Hell. Now he’s ready to write.”
For generation after generation, Thompson rocked/rocks/will rock the dominant paradigm, describes our national character; corruption, inequality, mediocrity, freedom and fun, Fear and Loathing. His words, all the more relevant today, continue to delight and rattle us. In the months after he died, prompted to carrying on his message, I scoured and scoured the pages of his books looking for something, I’m not sure what. Some evidence that he thought the world would right itself in spite of his suicide? The closest thing I found, which I later wrote on a whiteboard at my old job, was this:
Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of “the rat race” is not yet final.
Alas, he also said, when asked what words of wisdom he had for today’s youth, “You poor bastards.” Ultimately, his spirit lives on in the people he inspired, but there is also his specter, the permeating sensation that nothing’s changed, that everything’s coming down at last, the Fear.