Hunter Stockton Thompson blazed across the republic of American arts and letters for too short a time. When in February 2005 Thompson, 67, killed himself with a .45 at home in Woody Creek, Colorado, freethinkers and lovers of his savage, beautiful words grieved the world over — and we still do.
Thompson was a Southern boy from Louisville, Kentucky, whence comes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Fay, later Buchanan. After a sally into higher education and military service, both marked by varying degrees of brilliance and insubordination, Thompson moved to New York City and worked as a reporter. His specialty was, initially, sport, and his forte was observation. He was 21 and working for TIME magazine on its copy desk when he decided to type out The Great Gatsby just to see how it felt, how Fitzgerald’s style affected his fingertips.
He travelled alone for a story, by car or boat or canoe or motorcycle, and took his own (excellent) photographs. His early stories are varied and rich, ravishingly written even when the tale itself is a plain, unvarnished one. All the better if he shocks or upsets you with his subject or his prose: that means you’re thinking. When in July 1963 Thompson announced he was through with hitch-hiking because superhighways were a drag, he detailed his real reasons in no uncertain terms for a country in the midst of the civil rights movement, getting set for the march on Washington within month:
Outside of Jacksonville, on a cool July evening, I was picked up by three negro air force sergeants with no real interest in a leisurely drive across the Deep South. They wanted to make time, and 19 hours later they let me out of the car at Times Square in Manhattan. During those hours I had to act as purchasing agent for all their food — which we ate in the car en route — because they couldn’t get served in any of the drive-in restaurants. It was my first view of segregation from the other side of the fence…
This article was for the National Observer, the weekly paper, started by Barney Kilgore in 1962, in which Thompson first published regularly.
The editorial page of the Montana Standard, in Butte, railed against Thompson in 1964, after he had informed his readers that Montana state university students drank beer, played poker and occasionally walked out of bars with pretty girls. In conclusion the Standard sniffed:
We have often wished, and still do, that the big-time by-liners who appear hereabouts from time to time to ‘do’ Butte or Montana would veer away from the notion that reporting in depth means scraping the sump.
While in Montana, Thompson followed the last footsteps of a hero of his, crossing the border into Idaho to visit Ketchum, and ‘Ernest Hemingway’s empty house, a comfortable looking chalet with a big pair of elk horns over the front door’. The 27-year-old Thompson, mourning the recent suicide of a writer who ‘did his best work when he felt he was standing on something solid — like an Idaho mountainside, or a sense of conviction’, took those elk antlers when he left. Fifty years and a bit later, Thompson’s widow Anita returned them to Hemingway’s house, now owned by the local library.
Sump-scraping, or, as one might prefer to call it, first-person contemporary chronicling, or, as Thompson dubbed it himself, gonzo journalism came to its first raw raging fruition with a long essay on the Hell’s Angels in California for the Nation in 1965. ‘The Motorcycle Gangs’ opened with the reported gang rape in Monterey of two teenage girls by ‘filthy, frenzied, boozed-up motorcycle hoodlums,’ and led to Thompson’s spending most of a year riding with the Hell’s Angels. He left the road when he was badly beaten up, and finished his first book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, in 1966.
In an interview the following year, he sympathised with the Angels, calling them ‘a whole subculture of dropouts and washouts, people who just can’t make it in this automated, technological society’.When pressed, though, Thompson said his most vivid impression and memory of the Angels was the Labor Day ‘run,’ a ‘giant picnic or outing’ that turns into ‘bedlam’, with townspeople nearby terrified into their homes, police helpless, and a gang of 200-300 motorcyclists ‘drunk out of their minds, eating pills, like an army of Huns’.
Living in San Francisco as the Beat scene gave way to hippies, as Neal Cassady’s raps with the Grateful Dead at the hungry i and Hashbury’s cornucopia of drug varieties alike fuelled his mind and body, Thompson thrived. In his wild exposé-cum-roman-à-clef Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971), Thompson recalled that his primary feeling was a
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 newest biography, or partial biography, of Thompson begins with the breaking of the wave. Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism by Timothy Denevi, while an account of Thompson and his writing in the early 1970s, also intends to set that account into the context of Donald Trump’s presidency.
For Thompson the fear and loathing worsened as he covered the 1972 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone. An early supporter of George McGovern, Thompson watched, and wrote, in horror as McGovern won the Democratic nomination with the help of his campaign manager Gary Hart (later Thompson’s Colorado neighbour and longtime friend), then lost the election to Richard Nixon. One could say Thompson became a political essayist in the first place because he had always hated Nixon so very much, from the 1940s and Nixon’s days on the House Un-American Activities Committee. In his searing 1994 obituary of Nixon, Thompson sums up the man he chronicled in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72:
I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.
Denevi’s own rampant writing suits the story he tells. The personal and the political are inextricable. Dipping back in a brief prelude, he sketches out Thompson’s early married life against the backdrop of President Kennedy’s assassination — Thompson’s son Juan Fitzgerald was named for both F. Scott and JFK — before plunging into his thesis that Thompson’s ‘life-defining campaign’ against Nixon’s ‘populism’ (though Thompson himself preferred to call Nixon a Nazi) was ‘sustained by drugs, mania and little else’.
According to Denevi, Thompson first took LSD from Ken Kesey at a party at Kesey’s house in August 1965 — chiefly to blot out the sight he’d seen, earlier in the day, of Neal Cassady’s girlfriend Anne Murphy, semiconscious from LSD, being gang-raped by Hell’s Angels. (Violence against women is a grim hallmark in Thompson’s writing; shocked and enraged by it, he recounts it in almost panicked detail.) Thompson himself says he first took acid ‘one night in a place called the Fillmore Auditorium. And that was that. One grey lump of sugar and BOOM.’
Stale Bull Durham soaked in lab-made THC illuminated Thompson’s account of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, where plywood windows shielded him at the Conrad Hilton while ‘the American Dream was clubbing itself to death just a few feet away’. Denevi tells the scene as if he is watching, invoking ‘Hunter Thompson’ by his full name, repeatedly. The sight of Thompson, running on acid and/or Dexedrine and/or cocaine, running on scotch and any pills to hand, running on empty, and on, and on, is not only powerful but moving. You watch as a sharp, gifted wordsmith alternately drugs himself to make covering Nixon bearable, and then, in the end, to make anything bearable, after Watergate has happened, Nixon has resigned, and the record shows that a ravaged Hunter Thompson was right all along.
Thompson’s crusade lasted far more than a decade. Terry Gilliam, director of the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, celebrates Denevi’s skill in ‘this sympathetic and sharply written “best years of his life” bio’, but any focus on the passionate intensity of Thompson’s political writing should never neglect the beauty of his command of language, and the sweet idealism that never quite left him.
Cartoon versions of Thompson, from Garry Trudeau’s Uncle Duke in Doonesbury to Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke (Depp prepared for the role during four months living in Thompson’s basement at Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado), all pale next to the man, and always will. The Me Decade rotted into what Thompson called the Generation of Swine in the 1980s, and he continued writing ‘The Gonzo Papers’ on into the 1990s. The curtains of his study at Owl Creek were made of American flags. He saw, and loved, and pitied, and was revolted by, America. As New Year’s Eve loomed in 1985, Thompson reflected:
Ted Kennedy is in town this week, along with Donald Trump and Adnan Khashoggi, with his squadron of black-shirted bodyguards. People are afraid… where will it end? Mount Etna is erupting again, and George Shultz is about to be fired, for reasons of national security. There is no respect, and there is more than one hog in the tunnel. Carpe diem. Prepare to eat or be eaten.
Trump is not cruising the hot spots of Aspen these days. Khashoggi is dead — as is his nephew Jamal, like Thompson a political journalist of the first water. Thompson’s son Juan and his longtime collaborator Ralph Steadman have both said how much Trump’s rise and presidency would have riled Hunter. Who could argue with them? When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro, and Hunter S. Thompson was one hell of a pro. We need you now, Hunter.