The first and last time I spoke to Hunter S. Thompson, he woke me up at four in the morning and demanded to know what postmodernism was. I had just started graduate school at McGill University and was in the midst of applying for a research grant to take me to Colorado, where I would assist American historian Douglas Brinkley. Brinkley was in charge of editing Thompson’s vast personal correspondence for publication, so the call wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it still took me a couple of minutes to realize
I wasn’t being harassed by a particularly devious kind of pervert. The problem was I didn’t really have an answer. Postmodernism is a debate best left to putting people to sleep, not rousing them from it.
Thompson gamely suffered my creative, if incoherent, rambling, and the conversation soon turned to safer shores. We covered a fair amount of ground, from his friendship with novelist and kindred spirit William S. Burroughs to the state of American politics and his experiences running for office (in 1970, he ran—and lost—for Sheriff of Pitkin County in Aspen, Colorado, on a Freak Power Party ticket that was pro-drug and anti-development). We traded reading recommendations; I was ordered to familiarize myself with Truman Capote and he agreed to check out Chuck Palahniuk.
Months passed. Then, the same week I found out my grant application was on hold, reports of an accidental shooting filtered out from Thompson’s “fortified compound” in Woody Creek,Colorado. Thompson, a gun enthusiast (akin to saying the Pope is a God enthusiast), had unintentionally wounded his personal assistant. My disappointment at the news from the Fulbright folks was tempered by a craven sense of relief—at least my wardrobe would not need to include bright orange vests.
My research has since led me down a different path and I never did make that trip out to Colorado, but this experience came back to me several months ago with the news of Thompson’s suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Made famous by 1971’s scathing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream and for imbuing Rolling Stone magazine with its (now all-too-familiar) sense of rebel cool, Hunter S. Thompson will be best remembered as a eulogist for the counterculture, a literary bad boy, and a hedonist who turned pro. He was all of these things, it is true, but he has also left behind a body of work too often overshadowed by the frenzied circumstances of its production.
In 1962, after a brief stint in the air force and a series of jobs as an entry-level stringer, the native of Louisville, Kentucky, decided to take off to South America. “After a year of roaming around down here,” he wrote, in a letter to Washington Post publisher Philip Graham, “the main thing I’ve learned is that I now understand the United States and why it will never be what it could have been, or at least, tried to be. So I’m getting ready to come back and write what I’ve learned.” Thompson’s blunt insights into South American politics and culture, and the region’s attitudes toward the United States, impressed Carey McWilliams, the editor of the Nation. He commissioned Thompson to write about a new breed of social outcasts: the Hells Angels biker gang. What resulted from this commission would cement his reputation as a rising journalistic star.
Reversing the tradition of the self-effacing scribe, Thompson positioned himself as protagonist and narrator. Rather than observing the Hells Angels at a remove, he insinuated himself into the gang and rode with its members for over a year (though his keyed-up attitude hinted at the “gonzo” innovation that would come to the fore years later in his work). Thompson made it clear from the start that he was reporting on the gang’s activities and wasn’t looking to join, and so, he was accepted as an outsider among outsiders. This status would prove to be tenuous, though, as Thompson’s association with the Angels ended abruptly after he was “stomped” (i.e., given a thrashing) over a discussion of the group’s cut of his royalties.
Despite the sobering postscript, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga was a great success. Its publication in 1966 was representative of a general shift in the practice of journalism. Writers like Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, George Plimpton, Terry Southern and Tom Wolfe began increasingly to dismiss objective viewpoints. Without bias, they argued, there is no narrative. They insisted on making hitherto hidden perspectives obvious and grounding the story in the unfiltered experience of the writer. Mailer’s first-hand account of the 1967 anti-war march on Washington in The Armies of the Night probably remains the best-known example of what became labelled as “the new journalism.” Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology The New Journalism defined this movement, and Thompson’s zeal for covering a story won him a prominent place in its pages.
After making a name for himself with Hell’s Angels, Thompson was approached by an upstart San Francisco music magazine looking to broaden its horizons beyond rock stars. By 1970, Thompson was writing for Rolling Stone; he soon became its national affairs editor and perfected what came to be called “gonzo journalism.” Attributed to Thompson, the word “gonzo” actually belongs to Boston Sunday Globe reporter Bill Cardoso, who coined it after reading Thompson’s drug-fuelled, stream-of-consciousness report on the Kentucky Derby (“That was pure gonzo!”). The word proved a useful shorthand for Thompson’s objectivity-dissolving trick of turning reality into a narrative of lurid hallucinations and obscene routines. Sports-writing assignments, in particular, became punishing gonzo marathons that forced Thompson to push himself to the edge of any given situation in order to ascertain
its truth. And as demonstrated by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (written when he should have been covering the Mint 400 dirt-track motorcycle race in Vegas), this truth was to be found in his state of mind—a mind that was, of course, always given helpful psychotropic boosts—rather than his subject. Here’s the book’s now-famous opening passage:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
His specialty became Americana as phantasmagoria. The exhaustiveness with which he described his drug use had a shock-the-rubes element to it, but for all that, Thompson was calculating in his intoxication. One moment he was a holy fool, and the next he bore the wrathful aspect of an Old Testament prophet. The gonzo epiphany, the one that recurs throughout his writing, was: to make it to the edge is to encounter oneself. Thompson staged this confrontation again and again, and not always through drugs.
Collaboration was key to the gonzo effect—Thompson’s best work required the presence of a co-conspirator to catalyze the moment of recognition. Three come to mind in particular. The first is British illustrator Ralph Steadman whose trademark ink-splattered grotesqueries gave the gonzo legend its
“look.” The second is Thompson’s sidekick from the Vegas adventure: Oscar Acosta, a Chicano civil-rights lawyer and author in his own right, immortalized in the book as the 300-pound Samoan, Dr. Gonzo (“I recognized in Oscar [someone] who would push things one more notch toward the limit,” said Thompson. “You never knew with Oscar what was going to happen next”). The third is, strangely enough, Richard Nixon. Covering the 1972 presidential election for Rolling Stone, Thompson brought his gonzo approach to the straitlaced world of pool reporters and campaign coverage. Nixon turned out to be Thompson’s steadiest—if unwitting—collaborator. Simply put, Thompson despised the thirty-seventh POTUS with a fervour that verged on the incandescent. He dedicated 1979’s The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time to the former president, because Nixon “never let me down.”
By the nineteen-eighties, Thompson’s star was on the wane.
There were more collections of journalism, a new collaboration in 1983 with Ralph Steadman (The Curse of Lono) and a forgettable biopic starring Bill Murray (Where the Buffalo Roam). All of these were greeted if not by indifference then, at least, by a failure to electrify. Some ill-fated experiences on the campus-lecture circuit and the suspiciously familiar character Uncle Duke in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip added to the impression that the father of gonzo had become a cartoon of his former self. It is all too fitting, then, that his career received a last jolt of adrenaline from his bête noire. Nixon’s death in 1994 spurred Thompson to pen an obituary every bit as savage as its dedicatee. The piece effectively sums up his antipathy toward the disgraced president and plainly spells out just why gonzo journalism had to be invented in the first place.
Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism—which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.
Around the same time, Thompson looked to secure his legacy by drafting Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, as the editor of a proposed multi-volume set of his correspondence. Thompson was a prolific letter-writer and, in an act of either stunning foresight or naked hubris, he had been keeping carbon copies of all his letters (over 20,000) since his teenage years. The first volume, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, covering the years from 1955 to 1967, was published in 1997 to widespread critical acclaim. It turns out Thompson may have been on to something when he told a friend in 1964 that “people would rather read my letters than my work.” Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, the second volume (1968–1976), was released in 2000. Brinkley tells me that the third volume—The Mutineer: Rantings, Ravings, and Missives from the Mountaintop—is scheduled for release this December.
The Modern Library made the first effort to nudge Thompson toward canonical respectability by reprinting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a bona-fide classic (followed by Hell’s Angels) in 1998. During the same year, a sparkling Hollywood treatment of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by director Terry Gilliam (starring Johnny Depp) hit the multiplexes. In short, Thompson returned to prominence, as his work was introduced to a new generation. Indeed, his gonzo antics now appear like they were custom-built for a world saturated by reality programming, where fake news (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) is more accurate than the real thing (pundits on the administration’s payroll, non-reporters lobbing softball questions at White House press briefings).
There were more books, too. His account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, was followed by his lone novel, The Rum Diary, completed in 1959 but not published until 1998. More recently, he was galvanized by new challenges—namely, the post–September 11 climate of fear and the rollback of civil liberties engendered by the War on Terror, which he wrote about in Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness—Modern History from the Sports Desk.
This, more or less, brings us up to the moment in Thompson’s Woody Creek kitchen when he decided to
turn his gun on himself. If the eulogies that poured in are any indication, it continues to be convenient to pass off Thompson as just another wild child of the sixties, a countercultural legend who made it big by behaving badly and living to tell the tale. In the era of personal journalism, Thompson’s personality was especially outsized; his decision to “burn out” rather than “fade away” will only make it all the more difficult to separate the man from the mystique. This is why his curiosity about postmodernism is so telling. His cultivation of an outrageous public persona hints at the self-consciousness that has markedvmost po-mo activity. The thing is, the gonzo effect—taking the banality of everyday life and beating the incurious masses over the head with it—is a powerful refutation of the overwhelming unreality that characterizes latter-day America. An official family statement—which asked for privacy and simply noted that Thompson “stomped terra”—echoed the epitaph he had written for his friend Oscar Acosta. Res ipsa loquitur.
Oscar was a wild boy. He stomped on any terra he wandered into, and many people feared him…His birthday is not noted on any calendar, and his death was barely noticed…But the hole that he left was a big one, and nobody ever tried to sew it up. He was a player. He was Big. And when he roared into your driveway at night, you knew he was bringing music, whether you wanted it or not…Oscar was one of God’s own prototypes—a high-powered mutant of some kind who was never even considered for mass production. He was too weird to live and too rare to die.