The truth is that more than anything I am just terribly sad about it. Not that it had to happen, or even how it happened, but just that it happened. It seemed that things were coming full circle, that his time was coming round again. The tiles were lining up perfectly. Half of us are happy (half of us might be stupid or juped too, but that's another story) and the other half are aghast; fear washed and trodden down. We're silent almost. Didn't it seem like the perfect return?
The timing of it just seems all wrong.
For the past two days I've received numerous e-mails from writer friends of mine who share my sense of loss. The truth is there's a healthy number of us who got into this game-this writer's game, this fight, this blight-in no small part because of Hunter S. Thompson, doctor of gonzo journalism. Not solely because of him, but in large part, yes, those of us who turned our back on conventional writing forms, who embraced the internet an these little blogs, our little living rooms, are the bastard children of George Plimpton, Spalding Gray, and then the great, difficult, antagonistic beautiful bastard that was Hunter.
We came to him by way of Jack Kerouac, reading On the Road when we were 16, discovering that our lives, our experiments, our wanderings were legitimate. And then in college we re-read On the Road only to discover that Kerouac was a miserably little bastard, a horrible writer and an empty vessel. He degraded the form in some way you instinctually know but cannot intellectualize. If you wanted vent for the unidentified pain and listless anger many in my generation felt, Hunter became your bedtime story. I read Hell's Angels when I was 18. I devoured Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail next. I then picked up Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I feel lucky to part of one of the last generations who will not discover this book via the movie.
My friend's e-mails all carried a similar theme, though, one I want furiously to debunk. I'd like to smash their logic like a glass on the wall, only we just don't know. "It was inevitable really," one read. "We all knew he'd commit suicide, didn't we? That lifestyle just can't lead to fruition. The drugs, the alcohol, the fucking guns. Don't they wind to the same dead end cul-de-sac that Hunter found himself? Isn't it the logical extension?"
I would argue that it is absolutely the logical extension, but not because Hunter's life wound there without stop or side road. To not be disrespectful, I think fading away over time from some degenerative disease or fight with pain or the simple grip of time was far too small a way to pass for Hunter. His end had to be finite; it had to be as spectacular as he was large. It had to remove the caricature cartoon he had become for so many, strip away the paint and color and leave the man. I don't think he meant it intentionally, but by making his own choice and choosing his own end and doing so with an exclamation point is in some ways fitting. If also just extraordinarily sad.
There are famous stories about Hunter and deadlines. He always missed them, yet published pieces that seems so relevant. So perhaps his leaving should be viewed in the same light; brilliantly horrible timing offering both a void and an all-too-timely reminder. Journalism still deals with the questions raised by Armstrong Williams-those who were hired by the current administration to offer unobjective "news" to an audience all too willing to accept opinion as fact, to journalists all too willing to accept press release as source. The boy-toy mouth piece, Jeff or Jeb or Jud or whatever Gannon, who stood as a member of the press corps in the White House to lob soft ball questions to the President and his voice box. The famous Memogate incident (is anyone else tired of the "gates?") with CBS and Dan Rather, whose very staff forgot to combine the word "fact" with "check," and whose own network has still refused to answer the hard questions about where these documents came from and exactly why they were so willing to run with a story their instincts had to tell them was propaganda ridden and paper thin. This is our democratic system right now. This is the state of journalism today.
There was always juxtaposition with Hunter. He was willing, well willing is not the right word, he was eager to throw his own scorched-earth lifestyle up in stark relief up against what he saw as the "swine" in power. The guns, the drugs, the alcohol, and yet somehow at the end of his ulcerfied rants there was always a moral judgment to be handed down, and it hardly ever landed on him. That was the benefit of admitting his darker side up front. When someone yells out their sins what are you left with but to look at the other side?
He practiced wholly subjective journalism and put no dice with objectivity. Because objectivity is for those in positions of power. Subjectivity tears away the mask and barks at the moon. Objectivity is for every old man in a tattered suit who look at blogging and denounces it as mere child's play. Subjectivity is what allows the internet to become to tool that it is still maturing into. Hunter was a blogger. In a sense. Hopefully Hunter the outlaw will help us remember something about what journalism is supposed to be, the stories that should catch our eye, because they hardly ever do.
I don't know where in the cannon he really belongs. With Mark Twain? I've read that the past few days. In a way the comparison makes sense. Beware the joker in the room, the fool never lies. But I know this. Hunter was the unique thing. He was wholly original.
I've spoken to friends after who've been sent on assignment to some scurvy outpost to cover an event. As they recount their week, or whatever, in the hinterlands and drug addled tales of interviews and wild times you can almost hear the Thompson sidle up and have a seat. And I always think they are missing something. I never thought of Hunter as being depraved for depravities sake. His actions never came off as happening in a vacuum, for the fuck of it. He didn't piss on the White House lawn just to see it be done. They say that the sanest thing to do in an insane world is embrace your insanity; to go insane yourself. That's always how I saw Hunter S. Thompson. The guns, the fire extinguishers, the hours, the insanity, it all had a point. It was all used as a weapon; it all drew attention to something. At its most pointed, it drew attention to how incredibly wrong it has all gone, to how perverted this fragile little dream of ours can be. At its worst it drew attention to Hunter himself.
In the end, Hunter was one of many inspirations for me as I tried to figure out how I would find a place for these little thoughts and stories of mine. How does one write, take the personal onto the page? He was one of my mentors in that. Inspiration. Anyone who understands alienation, who struggles with what it is to feel like you're all wrong for this place, finds a kindred in his words. A kindred cynical optimist.
That's how I see him.
So this idea of him finally being beaten does not appeal to me. The idea that suicide was finally a way out holds no stock in my head. Hunter didn't give up. He threw bullets with every piece he wrote, whether he hit the target or not. He was bile and anger and desperation and ideal, and the giant guns he shot off, the words he fired into space, I guess metaphorically it's okay that he finally turned it all on himself. I see the disturbing poetry of it. I just don't like it, that's all.
I got to talk to him on the phone a little over a year ago. I was writing a piece for a magazine on the gay marriage debate and thought it would be interesting to cull together quotes from some of our more vocal and colorful personalities. In all of the letters and phone calls I made, only one conservative-minded person responded. The rest were liberals. I guess you can discern something about the courage of conviction from that, but the slant I wanted the whole time was his. I just wanted to know what Hunter would say. I was given his home number from his publisher and left a message on his answering machine. Two days later his soon-to-be-wife Anita called me.
"I think Hunter should chime in on this," she told me. "I'll tell him to expect your call. Call him at 2."
It was already 4:30 when she called. "So I'll call him at 2 tomorrow afternoon?" I asked, for clarification.
"No. He's up now. He's eating breakfast. He'll expect your call at 2AM."
Of course he will. I called him at 2AM and he picked up on the 4th ring. I'll let the gonzo nutbag's own words speak for themselves. Because he still had it. That instinct.
"It's a uh, it's a decoy issue. Come on, man! Uh, uh, just like that, that stupid uh, that stupid constitutional amendment thing. Uh, this, uh, this Bush he can order to take uh, people's minds off the disasters of the war and the economy. That, that uh, that's a uh, you know, it's a false dawn or uh, you know, it, it's deliberate uh faint, or a head fake. A Ruse I tell you! Yeah, yeah, and just, you know, uh, you see them all the time that's their, well it's everybody's strategy, you create some, create a distraction, a diversion. I don't, I think that uh, he had uh, I hadn't really given it much thought either way or for whatever because it seems so obvious. I'm concentrating on this rotten fucking president. I'm very, I'm very disturbed uh and angry that they would uh, that these swine would think that they would pass a constitutional amendment uh, that's other-worldly. And yeah, uh, yeah I'd be, I'm for it, why not? What the hell uh, I got, let uh, fine with me. My brother was gay. What the hell? Yeah, in a time when uh, when this country is really fighting for its life uh, we in this country, I'm talking about Bush; they all dub themselves as "we." But at a time when uh we really are in uh, it's uh, gonna last uh, you know in the last battle in this war against these Nazi-Jesus freaks, I uh, I can't really, uh, yeah, I'm kind of insulted that uh, hey uh, uh it just makes me angry that a uh, that a large chunk of the vote, of the potential anti-Bush vote could actually be distracted by this. But to answer your question, yeah, I'm for of it. What the hell? You know, why not? It's just a red balloon that uh, they're putting up just to take people's minds off what they're really doing. Because what they're doing, it hurts gays, straights, uh, uh, winos, uh, it's across the board. We're all getting hurt. It's not vertical."
I spoke with him for another 15 minutes before he had to go. He had friends over and had taken a little time away from them to speak with me on the phone. I've saved the tape from our talk. I'll always have it.
It just seems like the timing is all wrong. The quips and ironic dispositions or regurgitated crap that proliferate today in writing and journalism don't carry the same weight as his pharmetological wanderings did. Still do. And right now when we need someone who is serious, who took this seriously, right now, at this very moment, is when he chooses to exit. Stage left.
Perhaps what's scariest to some is that we took the gonzo journalist very, very seriously. And he seemed to take it seriously in return.
I'm sad that he would choose to end it all. But of course his words will be there for as long as we read them. There are many who will miss the Good Doctor. We should. He said it right.