In a strange and ironic turn of events, two days after I wrote my review of his recent essay collection Hey Rube, Hunter S. Thompson took his own life at his home Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado. So far there is very little hard news about Thompson’s death, except that it was suicide and the body was found by his son Juan and his new wife Anita was out of the house at the time. Thompson’s close relationship with Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis means that very little info about his death is getting out besides a basic AP report which all the newspapers are picking up for their late editions.
It’s no secret that Thompson had a very volatile personality and was given to bouts of fairly severe depression. From his recent writings he also seems to have been dwelling on the lung cancer death of his friend Warren Zevon several months ago. It’s hard to believe that Thompson would take his own life, especially since he always seemed to be so much more full of life that most people. It’s probably too early to speculate on the reasons, but if I were a betting man like Thompson, I’d give good odds that he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in late December when he missed 6 deadlines in a row for his ESPN column. In the wake of Zevon’s slow and unpleasant death that’s exactly the kind of news which would send him into the blackest of moods, and given the choice between a slow death and a quick clean exit I have no doubt which Thompson would choose. It’s very telling that his wife was away at the time, while his son Juan who lives with his family in Denver was on the spot to find the body and to take care of the details.
In his 67 years Thompson authored over 20 books, including many collections of extraordinary essays and a couple of recent novels. His most famous works are Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which was made into a movie with Johnny Depp as Thompson and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail which formed part of the movie Where the Buffalo Roam starring Bill Murray as Thompson. Perhaps even more significant was his early work from the 60s, Hell’s Angels where he went undercover with the motorcycle gang and chronicled their out of control lifestyle. Recent works of note include Generation of Swine, Songs of the Doomed and Generation of Fear.
Thompson’s writing style was unique and he pioneered what came to be called ‘gonzo journalism’ where the author was a character in his own writing and the reality depicted in the writing was filtered through his perspective, sometimes with bizarre results. His books amused, informed and forced you to think outside of normal conventions. They were funny and sometimes brilliantly philosophical and often dark and troubling. No writer of the modern era more effectively injected his own moodiness and personality into everything he wrote. After reading a Thompson book you felt like you knew him more intimately than you perhaps ever wanted to.
In many ways Thompson’s gonzo style is the parent of much of the best work being done by bloggers. As a medium the weblog is ideally suited to the kind of immediate, personal and expressive writing which Thompson was so good at. Some of the best bloggers have clearly learned from his work and his style and are perpetuating their own version of it, combining factual reporting, opinion, insight and wild speculation into something unique and original. Thompson’s series of sports columns on ESPN had much of the character of a blog, appearing weekly and addressing whatever he felt like talking about in a very conversational way which was both engaging and sometimes overwhelming. The first couple of years of these essays are collected in his recent (and now final) book Hey Rube and the most recent ones which came out after the book can be read at the ESPN Archives.
Thompson lived hard, did a lot of drugs, reveled in every sort of experience and surrounded himself with an amazing circle of friends and admirers. He was irrascible and unpredictable and enigmatic. He lived life on his own terms and clearly chose to die that way as well. His personality, his energy and his insights will be missed, but he left behind a legacy of some of the most influential and innovative writing of the 20th century, and that will never go away.