“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.”
—Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt
For quite a number of years Jay Cowan was a friend of Thompson’s and a former tenant/caretaker of Owl Farm, which Cowan describes as “equal parts Animal Farm, funny farm, ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ and Walden pond with guns.” This relationship and their mutual vices allowed Cowan access to the man behind the myth not seen by many, which is likely why Thompson told Cowan he “could never write about him until after he died.” Now four years after Thompson committed suicide that fateful 16th of February, Cowan has compiled a memoir of their shared experience and a seemingly balanced assessment of Thompson.
They first met in 1969 while Cowan was still a senior in high school during a meeting about getting attorney Joe Edwards elected as mayor of Aspen. Thompson asked Cowan about the kids voting for Edwards and a bond formed as Cowan was interested in being a writer. He also worked on Thompson’s campaign to be sheriff of Aspen, which Thompson did not want to win. A few years later, Cowan moved into a shack on Owl Farm and also got married there in 1978, as evidenced by an included photo.
Living in such close proximity, family situations naturally spilled over. Thompson’s first wife Sandy left with their son Juan, and she told Cowan where she was going and made him promise not to reveal it, which caused a strain when Thompson found out. But Thompson could be a good friend, allowing Cowan to come back to Owl Farm after his divorce and helping out when Cowan’s father got cancer.
Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance tells the wild, expected stories of the two on LSD at Jimmy Buffet’s place and doing cocaine with Jack Nicholson, but Cowan doesn’t shy away from how Hunter’s lifestyle took its toll. Thompson said he started doing speed when he served in the Air Force and the base dentist’s daughter hooked him up. He candidly understated, “Nothing was ever quite the same after that.”
Cowan writes “for Hunter there was no shame in what he was doing,” but maybe there should have been. Thompson railed against the Uncle Duke caricature from “Doonesbury,” but he contributed to the persona as well. Cowan explains it was easier to give people what they wanted, to play the role of Hunter the Gonzo Journalist, especially when there was easy money to be made in doing so for the at times cash-strapped Thompson, rather than putting in the hard work to top himself as a writer, which was going to tough considering how successful he had been. He hid within the lifestyle of addiction and his tolerance allowed him to succeed at that. Thompson did continue to write columns and books, and even though there were occasional flashes of brilliance, like his piece right after 9/11, he couldn’t sustain the great literary heights he had achieved in the late ’60s/early ‘70s.
Cowan presents the highs and lows of Thompson as a political figure. There’s a funny passage dealing with Thompson fighting with High Times over an interview he tried to block where he was quoted saying he did cocaine in the Oval Office with members of President Carter’s staff. Slightly more than a decade later, Bill Dixon, who ran Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign, came to Owl Farm seeking counsel after Hart got caught with Donna Rice, only to find Thompson completely obliterated and unable to communicate.
What Thompson would likely find to be the two most cutting blows to his legend are when Cowan reveals he was a terrible shot, and he called on friends to help with his writing. The latter included Cowan himself, who not only “patch[ed] together the random notes and recent clutter” when Thompson was “wasted and tired after days of being up,” but he also says he “created big chunks of columns from whole cloth with only Hunter’s mumbles and gestures and orphaned sentences to go on” and then worked with San Francisco Examiner editor David Burgin to get the pieces ready for print. While certainly believable and likely not unique, it will still be disappointing to his fans.
Cowan concludes the book with a final sentence that seems a great summation of Thompson as “just another dazed and mortally flawed human: the true believer, the hopeful romantic, the King of Fun, the last honest man, the true sport, the guy who always bets his heart and knows it’s wrong but can’t stop himself.”
As a fan of Thompson’s work, I enjoyed seeing Cowan’s portrait. He’s does a great job creating scenes with his words and appears to cover the gamut of Thompson’s life and his death. However, I had one issue with the book in that it quotes Thompson from a lot of conversations the two had. The accuracy is hard to believe since some instances took place almost 40 years ago, and I couldn’t describe a phone call I had yesterday. Obviously these are Cowan’s remembrances and there’s likely some latitude in a memoir, but it still gave me pause as I read it.