Hunter S. Thompson:The man, the myth, the martyr?

By Gus Bode

A week-late look back at the life of the hard living, heavy-writing ‘elderly dope fiend living out in the wilderness’

Maybe no one will ever really understand him. After all, to know Hunter S. Thompson was to sift through all the booze, all the drugs and all the hyperbole – and who could do that? This is the man whose bravura journalism was eventually swallowed by his larger-than-life persona. Even in death – he committed suicide last week at the age of 67 – he himself was a mystery.

He was the father of “gonzo” journalism and a writing pioneer in every sense of the word, but he wasn’t exactly an open book (even if he wrote them for a living). He gave new life to the phrase “fear and loathing” and made us think twice about motorcycle gangs. His political coverage was derisive to the point of disdain, but he didn’t care. He did things his own way.

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And he sure did a lot of things. Did he drink? Sure. Did he dabble with psychedelic drugs? Oh yeah. Did he do his best to take down any politician he could with his manic rhetoric? You bet. But despite all that, he showed us an America many of us never knew existed. Of course, maybe none of it was true at all.

That was Hunter. He was a counterculture hero whose hypocrisy-grating gravitas pissed some people off, drove others mad and inspired a few to strive to be just like him. Just as there will never be another Dickens or Shakespeare, there will never be another Hunter S. Thompson – for better or worse.

But where to start? How do you begin to remember someone who might not have remembered doing most of the things for which he became famous? Well, he’s most famous for just a few of his works, so there’s no need to list all the rest. And, fittingly, because Hunter is on his way to the afterlife, you begin the rundown with hell. “Hell’s Angels,” that is.

“Hell’s Angels:A Strange and Terrible Saga” (1968)

This is the book that gave birth to gonzo journalism. Here, Hunter went inside a notorious biker gang and gave us a view into a world few of us had ever seen. Living and breathing the same air as his subjects – and producing a chronicle of terrible conviction – almost seemed to frighten Hunter himself. And why wouldn’t it? He ended up being pummeled by the gang and sported a severely crooked nose the rest of his days as a result. But that was the last time – from here on out, it was Hunter doing the pummeling.

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1972)

This modern classic was conceived in two articles Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone in 1971, but nothing in it resembles regular reporting. Throughout the book we realize we are not to go to the reporter for objectivity, but for the airing of articulate preconceptions. It main characters, on a trek from California to Vegas to cover an event for “a fashionable sporting magazine in New York,” are altered states addicts and it isn’t just hallucinogen-induced vomit they’re spewing – its contempt for our country’s state. One line – the fist line – sums its up:”We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

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“The Curse of Lono” (1983; new printing May 2005)

– “The Curse of Lono” is to Hawaii what “Fear and Loathing” was to Las Vegas:meaning hell in a hardback. The crazy tales of a gonzo journalist’s “coverage” of a news event that ends up as a trip through the seedy underbelly of America, “Curse” features all of the hallucinogenic wordplay for which Hunter was famed. And that doesn’t even begin to describe it.

“Generation of Swine” (1988)

– Thompson calls the present generation a Generation of Swine. With that phrase as his title and premise, he takes no prisoners. A reader can go through more than 300 pages of this tomb, forever on the prowl for journalistic jargon, and come up empty-handed. That’s because Thompson doesn’t write like the rest of us – he’s in a class by himself. Even if that class is, well, gonzo.

“Songs for the Doomed” (1990)

– Oscar winner Jack Nicholson once dubbed this collection “the most baffling human iceberg of our time,” and it’s easy to see why. With Thompson’s trademark insight and zeal for the state of American politics and culture, he charts the decades between JFK and George W. one in inimitable style. Spanning four decades – 1950 to 1990 – Thompson hits all the right notes as he flees New York for Puerto Rico, rides with the Hell’s Angels, permeates Las Vegas sleaze and tackles the “Dukakis problem.”

“The Rum Diary” (1999)

– Begun in 1959 by a then-22-year-old Thompson, “The Rum Diary” is a brilliantly tangled love story of jealousy, treachery and violent alcoholic lust in the Caribbean boomtown that was San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the late 1950s. The autobiographical hero of this work, Paul Kemp, is a writer trapped in a job going nowhere and feeling as if his big-time dreams, bathed in Faulkner and Hemingway, are evaporating as rapidly as the rum in his fist. Yes, he wrote a book about himself. Why, you sound surprised?

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