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Hunter S. Thompson, Mahalo

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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.

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About David Mazzotta

  • Re: “Then he kills himself, leaving everyone to make up their own answer as to why.”

    I couldn’t help but make an instant connection with Hemingway after hearing about HST’s suicide, as I’m sure many others have. It would be unfair to say that the good Dr. was copying Hemingway; he was more original than that. Still, a quick re-reading of HST’s “What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?” essay* conjures up an eery similarity between the life Hemingway led there and HST’s life on Owl Farm in Woody Creek (as HST described it). “Here, at least, he had mountains and a good river below his house; he could live among rugged, non-political people and visit, when he chose to, with a few of his famous friends who still came up to Sun Valley.” Just replace Sun Valley with Aspen, and the statement could fit HST. Perhaps something will come out during the next few days (weeks, months?) of post-mortems on what led to HST’s suicide: frustration with waning literary powers compounded by illness(?), who knows? I am sorry he is gone, but glad he was here.

    *A 1964 essay HST wrote for the National Observer on his visit to Hemingway’s home. It’s in my copy of The Great Shark Hunt (p.429 in 1982 paperback)

    p.s. I posted this on Dave Nalle’s review of HST’s latest book. Sorry to be repetitive, but I thought my entry fit more with this blog.

  • The most accurate political journalist of ours and our parents’ generation blew his mind out in Colorado on Saturday nite. I was, I am, a fan. In fact, I’d dare I say I “understood” the man’s writing.

    Most of the press will spin this as a tragic but predictable end to an outlaw career. They’ll probably say it with a “caveat emptor” epilogue. “This. Is. What. Happens. To. Those. Who. Step. Outside. The. Lines.” It’ll be blamed on drug excess. It’ll be a lesson to those who’d dare to live on their own terms. That is unfortunate, because it’s dead wrong. Drugs didn’t kill Thompson – his unflinching refusal to look at life thorugh anything but an honest lens is what did him in. 67 years butting heads with a system of facades upon facades – calling hands in a monstrous casino of charlatans. I’d say he may a noble effort.

    There’s a myth about people like HST and Kesey and the rest of those “fearless” writers. They’re deemed unbreakable. In reality, they are the most vulnerable of anyone. When you tell the truth, when you pull the curtain back, when you expose the underbelly of the machine, you’ve admitted to yourself that it’s all a cosmic farce. You’re ruined for the “game” that is, as Thompson called it, “the pursuit of the American Dream.” I imagine sometimes it’s hard to see an upside to this existence from that vantage point. Perhaps he just happened to have that pistol in his hand at such a moment.

    Thompson’s most famous line is also his most telling:

    “But their loss and failure is ours, too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create . . . a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody — or at least some force — is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.”

    That lesson doesn’t apply only to the Acid Culture. He used that failed movement as a strawman. He was really talking about the American Dream. He was talking about us.

    Thompson was always right. That must’ve been one hell of burden to shoulder.

    There are few fearless voices like Thompson’s left around, and that’s our grave loss. What they did, what they said, doesn’t “fit” anymore, and that’s a shame – in fact, it’s downright dangerous to the Republic. I hear a lot about “values” and “belief” and “faith” these days, but I don’t hear a lot about “honesty.” Hunter Thompson stood for honesty. He told it not just the way he saw it, but the way it actually was. I can’t think of a better epitaph.

  • Darrow

    When great men are mysteriously killed, I think it is more than a tragedy it’s a travesty of justice.
    With 911 cover up, a war time president, a fixed election, is there any credibility when a out spoken patriot dies of suicide. Certainly HST had enemies and we are entitled to the details of death as the investigation proceeds. The state of the union is suspect.

  • Jay

    A budding guitar player, whose one dream may have been to get big and meet or play with Hendrix, may not even be able to form the words of the heartbreak his self-inflicted death caused. And so woe is me, an aspiring journalist who never even honestly gave it her best shot to meet the one person she’d have given anything to meet. ~~
    The people that the late and great Hunter S. Thompson made nervous were no fools, for they realized he called thier bluffs. ~~
    If the end of the sixties was the beginning of the end for the American Dream, losing this person, and his edgy pen, well, surely the dream has finished dying now. Mahalo, good Dr. May we always remember WWHD, or write, anyhow.

  • And, if you haven’t heard, his wife Anita has forgiven his suicide. Hey, I like your site, that dam site. You’re blogrolled.

  • Alexander Pope

    Saturday, February 26, 2005, Page F9
    Hunter telephoned me on Feb. 19, the night before his death. He sounded scared. It wasn’t always easy to understand what he said, particularly over the phone, he mumbled, yet when there was something he really wanted you to understand, you did. He’d been working on a story about the World Trade Center attacks and had stumbled across what he felt was hard evidence showing the towers had been brought down not by the airplanes that flew into them but by explosive charges set off in their foundations. Now he thought someone was out to stop him publishing it: “They’re gonna make it look like suicide,” he said. “I know how these bastards think . . .”