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Monday, February 21, 2005

HUNTER S. THOMPSON

The Baltimore Sun reports:

Hunter S. Thompson, the acerbic counterculture writer who popularized a new form of fictional journalism in books like “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” fatally shot himself Sunday night at his home, his son said. He was 67.

More from the Denver Post and the Aspen Times.

UPDATE. Thompson’s final article.

UPDATE II. The New York Times obit puts Thompson’s age at 65; this evidence points to him being 67.

UPDATE III. I arrived late to Hunter S. Thompson. The first piece of his I read was a 1983 account in Rolling Stone of the Roxanne Pulitzer divorce trial. Not among Thompson’s great works, but it was the first time I’d read anyone cover anything without leaving out all the material reporters usually save for after-hours bar talk.

Within a year or so I’d read all the HST I could find: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ‘72, The Great Shark Hunt. As with many discoverers of Thompson, there was some infatuation; less for his “bad craziness�? phrasing than for structure. Which sounds odd, until you re-read Fear and Loathing with an eye for the story arc instead of the episodic hilarity. Check this extract:

It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—that kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run ...

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket ... booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end ... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was ... You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning ...

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ...

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

The book is that wave; remember, it opens with a line about drugs taking hold. Thompson may have written the only coherent allegorical history of the 1960s, and it took him (in my 1982 Warner Books paperback) just 204 pages.

Thompson rode a dying wave himself, turning increasing bitter as he faded towards shore. The most dated elements of his best work—loathing of “the pigs�? and Nazi Republicans; those squaresville dudes—became a central feature of his later, sometimes-unreadable, pieces. Not that Thompson’s influence faded; sadly, a solid case could be made that Gonzo journalism (frantically opposed to “greedheads�? and the like) gave rise to Margo journalism. Hate the money-people! Hate the suits! James Lileks is cold, but correct:

It was all bile and spittle at the end, and it was hard to read the work without smelling the dank sweat of someone consumed by confusion, anger, sudden drunken certainties and the horrible fear that when he sat down to write, he could only muster a pale parody of someone else’s satirical version of his infamous middle period. I feel sorry for him, but I’ve felt sorry for him for years.

Yes. Yet Lileks also writes, because he knows:

Don’t forget that there was a reason he had a reputation. Read “Hell’s Angels.” That was a man who could hit the keys right.

Undeniably. On deadline yesterday we yanked an item from the last page still open and inserted a quick Thompson tribute. Afterwards, proof-reading the piece, I opened my e-mail to find a note from Ken Layne. I thought it would be about Thompson, but instead Ken had sent photographs of his just-born, beautiful son. The timing was magnificent. So is Ken’s obit:

Even though we’d met only once—one long, sunny San Diego poolside afternoon that affected me deeply and permanently—and even though I was just another young punk writer wanting a little wisdom from the Good Doctor, Hunter S. Thompson was kind and generous to me, and he will always be one of the great pillars of my life. I feel the loss like somebody just kicked me in the stomach. I don’t care if his later work wasn’t as brilliant as the ‘70s stuff, or whatever people like to say. For me and many (but not enough) others, he defined both the good and evil of America, and he made a chicken-shit trade like “journalism” seem vital and romantic. He was wrong, or maybe he was just the last of his kind, or maybe just the last of his kind smart enough to con some moneybag publisher into bankrolling another jaunt to Mexico or Vietnam.

Hunter Thompson was a great American writer, and the finest wordsmith of the West since Mark Twain. His was a rare and special talent, never to be seen again. Hunter brought wisdom and joy and madness and skill to so very many people around the world. He had a heart like a lion. He will always be missed, and I am saddened that I will never again read a new crazy screed from Dr. Thompson.

UPDATE IV. The Australian’s Robert Lusetich:

His groundbreaking coverage of the 1972 presidential election race between Richard Nixon - who Thompson loathed - and George McGovern was once recalled by a Democrat campaign aide as being the “least accurate yet most truthful” account of that campaign.

Nixon, who Thompson had called a “walking embarrassment to the human race”, once said Thompson represented “that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character”.

It was an insult Thompson would wear as a badge of honour.

Well, of course he would, seeing as he wrote it himself, about Nixon.

UPDATE V. Oh, God; the Boston Globe reports:

The 67-year-old author sat in his kitchen Sunday afternoon, stuck a .45-caliber handgun in his mouth, and killed himself while his wife listened on the phone and his son and daughter-in-law were in another room of his house. His wife had no idea what had happened until she returned home later.

Posted by Tim B. on 02/21/2005 at 12:13 AM
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