I wrote this in 2005, following the suicide of Hunter S Thompson, for – a culture and ents guide in Liverpool I ran with Che Burnley and Ben Hau.
As B+W is crumbling into little bits so I thought I’d dig this article out and give it a wider audience. It’s six years to the day since Thompson concluded his odyssey.
Way of the Gun
Hunter S Thompson: Remembering the brutal odyssey of an outlaw journalist
The news that gonzo head honcho Hunter S. Thompson passed away last month, having shot himself in the head was not as surprising as it would if have been if the suicide in question had been, say, Barry Cryer. Thompson had reportedly gone into a decline following recent injuries and the reelection of George W Bush.
The manner of Thomspon’s death was wholly in keeping with the life he had led in recent years; as a virtual recluse in his fortified Aspen ‘compound’, where he amused himself firing guns, tending peacocks and spiking journalists’ drinks with psychedelic drugs. Indeed, in his sole meeting with Thompson – to discuss the proposed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… adaptation, which he was originally slated to direct – filmmaker Alex Cox remembers a “rude and fearful man.”
“He squandered his talent early (on two good books, Hells Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and thereafter wrote little, and even less of consequence,” Cox told me.
“He was evidence that drugs, particularly alcohol, really do work their magic on people,” adds Cox.
There can’t be much doubt that the combined effects of narcotics and alcohol abuse took its toll on Thompson’s mind and creativity over the years, but to overlook the body of work, and his impact on American literature would be a mistake. It sometimes seems as if the myth of HST the personality overshadows the talent evident in much of his work, and the popular image of Thompson as a dangerous space-cadet belies a varied and multi-layered canon.
Like Norman Mailer, with whom he shared a love of guns, booze and boxing, Thompson aspired to be a modern-day Hemingway – who also went to the great beyond courtesy of a self-inflicted gunshot wound – forever in pursuit of a new Great American Novel which was to remain elusive, although alongside the books Cox highlights The Rum Diary is a neglected gem.
Thompson is more associated with ‘gonzo’ journalism, rather than the novel, as his chosen form; a heady brew of anecdote, reportage and invective, and perfect for railing against the corruption and self-satisfaction of America, then and now. Thompson’s style was pretty much unheard of in the 60s as he made his name, and writers like Tom Wolfe and Mailer helped to develop what was termed ‘The New Journalism’, before the more recognisable moniker ‘gonzo’.
His works are, perhaps, not as much political, though they may superficially appear so, but more concerned with rather more abstract notions; good and evil, doom and destiny, loathing and self-loathing. Some of his best work is inspired by pure rage, whether it’s directed at editors who’ve stiffed him out of money; associates or enemies for some perceived slight; or his arch-nemesis Richard Nixon. His work driven primarily by spleen venting is often his funniest too – an overlooked facet of Thompson’s personality is that he was a very funny man, whether in attack or biting self-deprecation.
Thompson was also a ferocious letter-writer and his collected letters, published in several volumes, detail the development of raw young talent and raging ego to drug-addled hack to reclusive nut. There’s a fascinating portrait of Americana in these collections, from the great explosion of civil disobedience and civil rights legislation to Vietnam and the political fallout, through to Nixon’s demise and the new American Dream of the 80s.
Thompson’s legacy is especially important in today’s journalistic mire, where the American media is locked into a love affair with itself, The White House, and all things American. And in an United States where Dubya Bush can stroll to a second term, the need for Hunter Thompson is clearer than ever; an attack dog for the left, for the alternative community at a time when the conservative attack dogs in Washington or the Fox news offices or a hundred neo-Con blogs are in the ascendancy.
Thompson had apparently requested that his ashes be fired across his Colorado ranch “shot out of an upside-down, sculpted mushroom perched on a 150-foot-high, double-thumbed fist”. There’s a pleasing resonance to that.
Hunter S Thompson reading list:
The Rum Diary
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters Volume 1
Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist