Hunter S. Thompson came to prominence by writing about what is was like lead the life of a madman. He wrote about hallucinogenic drug-fueled antics and savagely insulted and/or threatened just about any figure of prominence that came into his purview. He wrote with fervent, anarchic energy. Think of this: A genetic mix of Ted Nugent and Johnny Rotten, possessed by the spirit of Jack Kerouac, and sent to Mardi Gras on an expense account. That was the life and world of Hunter S. Thompson. Or so it started.
He quickly became a counter-culture icon. He called Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey all sorts of names. He accused members of the mainstream media of dropping acid on the job. He was shocking. His madness was famously given an outlet in Rolling Stone magazine where he wrote a slew of memorable articles. He certainly did push the edge of journalism, recounting illegal activities with relish, and offering strident disrespect to everything that could be considered good and honorable. Counter-cultural types (primarily late ’60s leftish) embraced him wholeheartedly; they could feel special by convincing themselves that they were in sympathy with his scandalous defiance of the world.
That embrace was not a comfortable one for Hunter, who had a distasteful attraction to guns and gambling and booze, which did not sit well with the doctrinaire counter-culture once it dropped radicalism for political correctness. In time he was even robbed of his ability to shock. Not because he was any less mad, but because the world became unshockable. As the world moved through the ’80s, drugs became commonplace, even passe. And insulting politicians is a staple of television both serious and comic. What’s a madman to do when the world out-mads him?
(Aside: Interestingly, after leaving Rolling Stone, Hunter was followed there by P.J. O’Rourke who was the exact opposite — a normal person looking at insanity, as opposed to a lunatic looking at the normal world. When the world goes mad, the normal stands out. Jann Wenner is no dummy.)
Hunter’s appeal waned as quickly as it waxed. His final book was a dark rumination on the state of the country in general and George W. Bush in particular. Nothing we all haven’t already read in dozens of places, including many posts on Blogcritics. He also wrote a semi-regular, very pedestrian sports column for ESPN.com. As a cultural force, by any measure, he was down for the count.
But if he was no longer a vital journalist he seemed to at least be finding some form of peace in life, which even the maddest must desire once they reach their mid 60s. He married last year, and seemed to be fairly settled to life in his Colorado compound, pursuing his interest in fire-arms (his last ESPN column was a recounting of an odd conversation he had with Bill Murray about a new sport called Shotgun Golf) and enthusiastic forays into sports gambling.
Then he kills himself, leaving everyone to make up their own answer as to why.
Why doesn’t really matter much. For that matter, neither does the cult of personality he inspired in his heyday. All that is left is the writing. Most will laud (rightly) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But if you have a taste for something more human, I suggest Proud Highway a collection letters that reach back to well before he became Dr. Gonzo. We see the vestiges of the madness in the early letters, manifesting itself merely as a strong, passionate and colorful personality. More importantly, divorced from the hype, these letters reinforce his ability to write so compellingly. One hopes that will be his saving grace.