Obituary: Hunter S Thompson (1937-2005)
23rd February 2005
“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.”
As I write this it’s only two days since the news of Hunter Thompson’s suicide came out, and it will take a while to really sink in. But we have just lost one of the true legends not only of journalism but of American literature, and someone whose legacy is not yet really appreciated.
Like most of the great man’s readers, I knew him by reputation long before I came to read his work. This was one of the chief practitioners of the New Journalism, revered by satirists, immortalised as Uncle Duke in Garry Trudeau’s long-running Doonesbury comic strip. The world of journalism was and is full of wannabe Thompsons, usually so self-consciously outrageous that they completely fail to be outrageous, as well as failing to understand what was special about Thompson’s work. After my struggles with Tom Wolfe’s mannered prose I was fully prepared to be disappointed by Thompson. Imagine my delight on finding his writing was genuinely excellent, and even the most readily accessible material from the 1960s and early 1970s was nowhere near as dated as its specific origin in the period would lead you to believe – certainly they have aged better than the meanderings of his early inspiration Jack Kerouac. His other literary influences – Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and the Book of Revelation – are more timeless.
Hunter Stockton Thompson was born into a middle-class background in Louisville, Kentucky, and after a childhood marked by tragedy – the death of his father when he was 14 – and rebellion – he told a story, which may even be true, of being interviewed by the FBI aged 10 for vandalism on a mailbox; certainly he was jailed at 17 for armed robbery – he turned to writing, initially as a sports writer on an base paper while in the air force. After his discharge he quickly got hired by the New York Herald Tribune as its Caribbean correspondent, based in Puerto Rico – where he wrote his long lost novel, The Rum Diary – and then moving on to South America. His writings from this period are essential for anyone who believes Thompson was incapable of doing straight observational journalism.
But, back in the States, Thompson became a great advocate and exponent of the New Journalism, with its rejection of the conceit of objectivity and its stress on the reporter as a central figure in the story. “Objective journalism is one of the main reasons that American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long,” he argued. Only by getting subjective could you cut through the bullshit and get to the core of the issue. He went on applying this approach, in his fast developing gonzo style, to his twin loves of politics and sport – although it was a series of quirky profiles, most famously riding with the Hell’s Angels for Rolling Stone, that made Thompson’s name.
What really broke Thompson in the public consciousness, and to a large extent overshadowed the rest of his career, was an accidental book that grew out of his escalating drug use. In 1971, so the story goes, Sports Illustrated sent Thompson to Las Vegas to report on an off-road motorbike race. The article they received was so demented they refused to publish it – but Rolling Stone did, greatly aided by illustrations from the wonderful Ralph Steadman. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was a partly fictional account of a drug-fuelled weekend in the town, explosively written and a landmark of the time.
Unfortunately, it also led to Thompson being seen by many as a one-trick pony, defined by a hyperbolic writing style and a Herculean drink and drug intake. But the booze and drugs were not the point – or rather, they were the point only in that Thompson was holding up a distorted mirror to a distorted reality. The book is more of a riff on Joe Heller’s conceit from Catch-22, that in an insane world, who is to say the madman isn’t the only sane man in the story? Add the hallucinogenic quality of Vegas itself, a town that embodies all the worst aspects of American culture and raises them to an art form, and you have a story that just begs to be told by a writer completely twisted on psychotropic drugs.
However, while Vegas is a terrific example of Thompson’s style, it is not really representative of the man’s work. His next work, Fear And Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72, is one of the greatest books ever written on American politics, brilliantly getting subjective to chronicle the monumental suck-fest that is a US presidential election. The book is packed full of memorably brutal skewerings, not only of Thompson’s nemesis Richard Nixon, but of his would-be Democratic challengers like Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey. Particularly interesting is Thompson’s own evolution – although he begins as a strong supporter of anti-war Democrat George McGovern’s doomed campaign, by the end he has come to the conclusion that the only way America will ever get progressive politics is by destroying the Democratic Party. Amen.
This made it, while maybe not surprising, certainly disappointing that last year Thompson endorsed the rightwing Democrat John Kerry for the White House. Partly, it seems, this came from his admiration for the John Kerry he had known in the anti-war movement thirty years earlier; partly the loathing of a genuine southerner for the faux Texanism of George Herbert Walker Bush IV and his idiot son. There is also the significant factor that, as the late Frank Zappa put it, the Republicans are pure evil while the Democrats only aspire to be. But at least he kept his eyes open, always stressing that woolly liberalism was no defence against ruthless thugs like the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld junta currently in power.
But then, anybody reading Thompson looking for comforting affirmation of their prejudices would be looking in the wrong place. These days ‘politically incorrect’ is a cliché used to dignify tired old bigots, but Thompson was someone who could bear the description with pride. This drinking, smoking, hunting, shooting good ole boy, a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, followed no party line and had zero regard for liberal nostrums. But in his intentions he was on the right side, even when he was wrong. And how can you resist someone who writes deadpan about all the benefits that will accrue to Cuba’s economy once Bush has turned the whole island into a giant concentration camp?
While increasingly eccentric and reclusive in later life, and in poor health for the last few years, Thompson published maybe a dozen books in all, mostly collections of his journalism. All repay reading, as although he never again had the same popular impact as in the early 70s, he remained as sharp an observer as ever and his inimitable style, though sometimes lurching close to caricature, was always enjoyable, often shocking or laugh-out-loud funny. He proved that his touch hadn’t deserted him with “He Was A Crook”, his 1994 obituary of Richard Nixon. This is a stunning slice of invective, best enjoyed with Warren Zevon’s blue album on the stereo and a glass of bourbon in your hand. At a time when the old war criminal was being canonised by official America from Bill Clinton down, Thompson went into print to call the late president scum and say his body should have been burned in a trash can. Thus he gave voice to what millions thought but didn’t dare say.
And this was the point about Thompson. Too many people think that gonzo journalism is all about snorting coke and lacing your prose with profanities. Thompson’s writing was important because he was engaged – he wrote about things that mattered and wrote about them passionately. The current fad for writing about trivia with ironic distance was totally alien to him. Trotsky once said of Max Shachtman that he never wrote about the class struggle, only its literary shadow. Thompson was unquestionably a literary man, but one who used the tools of his trade – whether investigation, factoids or even outright fantasy – to look beneath the surface at the rotten heart of the American Dream.
In fact this congenital pessimist, who never expected to live past 18, embodied a perversely optimistic worldview in his writing. The truth can set you free, indeed – if only you know what to do with it.
Hunter was one of the good guys. He was one of us. Like his great friend Warren Zevon, who died only a year ago, he was a genuine one-off. And the world is just a little bit greyer without him.
Hunter Stockton Thompson, born 18 July 1937; died 20 February 2005.