Hunter Thompson: The Vultures are Gathering

Michael Stephens

Thompson's death shatters the illusion of his life, and the first layer of that illusion is that we knew him. What we knew was a mask, a fictionalized self.

The vultures are gathering. In the American desert Hunter S. Thompson is -- was??? -- a mythological figure, one of those hallucinatory deities that coils around the Peyote cactus, a tombstone head and a graveyard mind, just 67 and don't mind dyin'. Thompson was a counter-cultural giant at the very least and when giants fall, scavengers darken the sky and deafen our ears with the bony rasping of their beaks.

What's weird about Thompson's death is that it seems like he made an offering of himself to the vulture culture he raved against for so long. Now every right wing reactionary and his brother, including the newly recovering Rush Limbaugh, will be lining up to lay his Fortune Cookie "I Told You So"s on Hunter's grave. Nobody expected that Thompson would kill himself, but maybe we should have. Maybe that's where we were dead wrong about Hunter.

Kurt Cobain took the same way out, but Thompson, in his public persona at least, seemed to come from a more testosterone-addled order of druggies. A two-fisted, rattlesnake-wrasslin' Lee-Marvin-on-PCP kind of cat, Hunter always made it seem like he would go down fighting with his demons and probably take a few with him. Having tangled with Hells Angels and ridden his Vincent Black Shadow full tilt down the snakeskin highway of every mind altering drug known to man, Thompson did not seem like someone who would be easily fazed by life's little zigs and zags.

But Thompson's death shatters the illusion of his life, and the first layer of that illusion is that we knew him. What we knew was a mask, a fictionalized self. Thompson fostered this illusion in his trademark substitution of a cantankerous and inebriated subjectivity for the traditional journalistic pose of neutrality. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the most famous example of Thompson's installation of his own overheated, drug-warped consciousness at the heart of the American nightmare. The book works so well because Thompson succeeds in making his readers feel like we are his drug buddies and co-conspirators. We know this stoned freak. To graying '60s heads and freshman students alike, Thompson is everybody's favorite acerbic stoner friend writ large and catapulted down the highway to the end of the night.

We didn't expect this droll space cadet to put a gun to his head. We figured that old coyote could find his way out of any psychic jam. No matter what the odds, he'd show up sooner or later in the corner of some palm-tree polluted hotel bar, in a pith helmet and Hawaiian shirt with the bamboo cigarette holder between his teeth and a spiked cocktail in his hand, glazed but in control, plotting his next outrage.

His death shattered this fantasy with the cold-water realization that the gonzo character in his books was a fiction, an idealized narrative voice that is no more a genuine representation of Hunter Thompson than Philip Marlowe is a genuine representation of Raymond Chandler. Even though Thompson let it be known that he preferred to live in seclusion and was a "very private person", the fictional Thompson lived on in press stories and popular mythology. The very private person made more appealing copy when he was dressed up as an eccentric wild man in a fortified compound in the Colorado hills typing vitriolic rants between target practice with an elephant gun and alternating hits of tequila and mescaline.

Another illusion that Thompson's death may help to destroy is that of the exceptional user who can somehow, though personal strength or good genes, "handle" drugs and alcohol. The myth of the life-long alcoholic/addict who has transcended the need for recovery and is "happily" drinking and drugging his way into old age can be seen in the media's treatment of Hunter Thompson, Keith Richards, Shane McGowan and other unreconstructed "survivors" of long-term substance abuse. Thompson's suicide underlines what we should already know: drug and alcohol abuse are always symptoms of a fatal illness that brings with it deep unhappiness and an inability to cope and from which the only reprieve is in life-long sobriety and recovery.

The common condition of all addicts and alcoholics is a deep, underlying, generalized fear and a sense of isolation and disconnection from family, friends and society; the places where most people find their sense of identity and security. Driven by anxiety, the addict/alcoholic may develop precocious intellectual skills as a desperate attempt to cope and may also learn dysfunctional social strategies, such as manipulating, people pleasing, and masking feelings. At whatever age the alcoholic/addict discovers that alcohol or drugs relieve anxiety and produce a temporary sense of well being, self esteem and social confidence, the user stops developing emotionally and remains frozen for the rest of their addicted life at an emotional level whose immaturity deepens as the alcoholic/addict grows older.

The emotional retardation leads to further, compensatory over-development of the intellect and an "I can think my way through everything and feel nothing" orientation to life. The result may be powerful intellectual or artistic achievements and a life devoted to the construction of a persona rooted in outward signs of success, control and achievement, while the inner person remains undeveloped, chaotic, fear driven, and emotionally incapable of dealing with life's most difficult challenges: aging and the approach of death. However the outer specifics of Hunter Thompson's life shaped his addiction, the inner pattern of the alcoholic/addict's experience is universal. The common truth of this experience relieves addicts of the pain of their "terminal uniqueness" and unites them in a shared experience with their fellow sufferers. Unfortunately Hunter never experienced that relief.

Hunter Thompson's tragedy may prove to be his inability to remove the mask that he created so indelibly in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That youthful character and his drug addled adventures marked the high point of Thompson's career, and that peak may have been hard to let go of, hard to forsake for the humble pie of rehab and recovery. Hunter continued to play the wild man, continued to pose with his trademark cigarette holder and ever-present cocktail, continued to wear the mask, as the man behind it grew older and more desperate. Long after old friends and fellow carousers like Warren Zevon got off the bus, Hunter stayed on, hanging on to the diminishing returns of long-term addiction, playing a part he could only outgrow by abandoning the identity that made him famous. At 67, that role may have finally become too confining for Hunter's spirit. Let us celebrate the noble, angry truths that Hunter told and rejoice that he is free at last from all fear and loathing. The vultures are gathering, but we can't hurt him now.

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