Monday, February 21, 2005


Once the weird turn pro, there's no going back. You push whatever you're driving to the limit till it either runs outta gas or hits a wall.

Looks like it was the latter for Hunter S. Thompson.

Fucking gun to the head. Some are saying it was inevitable, that a guy with such a deep attachment to firearms & intensity would eventually turn on himself. Maybe they're right. Who knows what was surging through his overworked brain in those final moments. Whatever the incentive, it certainly put a serious exclamation point on Thompson's life.

I didn't grow up around books. Had to seek them out. Read whatever looked interesting on the local library's shelf. But that's not where I discovered HST (not in my conservative 'burb). In my mid-teens a friend lent me "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." I'd never heard of Thompson, been to Vegas, done acid or fired guns in the desert. But from its killer opening --

"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?'"

I was hooked. Who wrote like this? Why didn't my English teacher assign this? And as you know, "Fear and Loathing" never lets up. It's a literary speed trip with fantastic, hilarious images. I'd been writing and scribbling since I was 11 or so, sentence fragments, jokes, one-liners. But HST's prose made me want to go the author route, something I hadn't ever considered. He was the first writer to stir that desire within me, which is why I always read whatever he turned out. Quality didn't matter. I owed the great bastard at least that.

HST was extremely well-read. He'd digested most of the American classics, including, of course, Jack Kerouac's Duluoz Legend, which influenced much of his writing. (As he put it on the wonderful -- buy it or burn it! -- CD, "Kicks Joy Darkness," Kerouac "was and remains one of my heroes.") And no one, not even Pat Robertson, made better use of the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation. Thompson understood and appreciated the poetry found in the description of the End Times. When he needed that extra visual punch, or when, as he openly admitted, he needed to fill narrative gaps, he reached for the Good Book. To him, it wasn't a prop to pound the pulpit. It was Serious Literature and deserved eternal respect.

Thompson also got celebrity culture, and used it shamelessly to advance himself. What American writer wouldn't? Anyone who's dealt with the publishing world knows what a rotten place it is, populated by some of the emptiest, most cynical fuckers you'll ever encounter (showbiz and politics complete the triumvirate). They hate the people they sell books to and do everything they can to push writers in the dumbest directions. HST broke through that and rose above it. He was envied and despised for pulling it off, and he knew it, which was why he could behave the way he did and write whatever the fuck he wanted. Any author who condemns him for that is a hypocrite. We who scribble should be so lucky.

Bill Murray and Johnny Depp played him on film. Murray's take in "Where The Buffalo Roam" is decent enough -- but the movie is at best second-rate. Depp took his HST further, deeper. Had the good Doctor shave his scalp so to give his performance that added Method edge. The film version of "Fear and Loathing" is a minor classic, in my view. Cartoonish enough to be funny, dark enough to be strange. CBS should show it every Thanksgiving in prime time, uncut, uncensored, like "The Wizard of Oz." Perfect evening fare for overstuffed Americans.

There's so much more to say about Thompson, but I'm too sleep-deprived make every point I could make. I will say this -- many believe that HST burned out long ago and went through the motions in order to cash the checks. Yes and no. It's tough even for a writer with Thompson's talent to keep detailing the increasingly foul and corrupt nature of American society and not repeat himself. If you are to accurately portray what's going on, and do so without blinking, then you must take it where HST took it. That wears you down. It's like carrying the ball 88 times a game against the Patriots' defense. Not for the weak. That Thompson carried the ball well into his 60s says something about his ground game. It would make Barry Sanders weep.

On the eve of the '72 election, when it was clear that McGovern was doomed and that Nixon would win in a landslide, HST typed these timeless words:

"This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it -- that we really are just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable."

This is Thompson the Optimist. We never did, and probably never will, come face to face with ourselves. November 2004 proves that.

Hunter S. Thompson might have seen where this mad adventure ends, and didn't want to stick around for the bill. If so, then God help us all.

Farewell, Hunter. And thanks.