When Did Hunter Thompson Die?

Hunter S. Thompson, according to the obits and the ineradicable jottings of the Great Scorer, shot himself on February 20, 2005. Just short of a year ago, after rereading a ton of his works, I felt an essay building up in my head. With the deadline for a piece of pay copy looming and clamoring for attention, I had to get this HST word-mass out to free up the works. This poured out in a single, 3-hour rush, leading me to wonder if I’d been thinking about this sort of thing long before the fourth anniversary, and had somehow caused my thoughts to reach critical mass. The result was nearly identical to what you see here. In honor of the fifth anniversary of his suicide, I thought I’d repost it here.

FOUR YEARS AND A DAY after Hunter Thompson’s suicide. Four years exactly since I pounded a shot of tequila in his honor, and suppressed an urge, at 1:00 in the morning, to call Felix and tell him the news. If ever there were someone who’d want to know this piece of ill news, at that hour, it would be Dave. Later, when I mentioned I’d chosen to let him sleep (phone calls past a certain time triple my heart rate), he averred that he wouldn’t have thought poorly of such an early-morning update.

In the days preceding this anniversary, I found myself rereading his first volume of letters, The Proud Highway, which spans his journalism career from the Air Force through the publication of Hell’s Angels. The bulk of the book precedes his hardcore drug use; in at least two instances, he actually disavows marijuana as being superior in any way to his then-lifelong drug of choice, alcohol. The true depth and breadth of his drug experience lies somewhere between what he reported in subsequent letters (as collected in Fear and Loathing in America and the upcoming third compilation), the direct testimony of those who knew him best (as reported in his recent collaborative biography, Gonzo), and the consumption he catalogued, with varying embellishment, in his reportage.

I believe, as many other contemporaries and co-conspirators have reported, that Hunter’s gonzo image began to overtake the man, to the detriment of his output. His rebellious streak and the drink seem to have been the only drags on his early journalism: stealing wholesale from Time-Life as a copyboy; being fired for property destruction from two newspapers; evictions on both coasts for drunken, all-hours carousing.

His early-60s reporting, which increasingly won him merit and more work, seemed to him distractions from his fiction writing. While casting about for the journalism that won him his daily bread, he worked tirelessly on The Rum Diary, and Prince Jellyfish. Combine this with a gut-level loathing for The Man and an enduring belief that his writing voice was clearest when expressed strictly on his own terms — not those of a faceless editor in New York or San Francisco — and you can see how the frustration needed to be vented somehow.

Those of use who have never had a spotlight of attention thrown on us almost overnight may puzzle over why, when the same happened to Thompson after Hell’s Angels won early praise, he sabotaged himself. He stumbled through a publicity tour either painfully withdrawn or drunk. He blew off lucrative magazine and newspaper stories, including a major piece with The New York Times on the Nevada penal system that, as far as I know, remains unpublished. Despite having a formidable body of work on South America, the passing of the American West, and the most feared cycle gang in the country, in the time between Hell’s Angels and “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” with none of his long fiction published, Thompson considered himself back at square one. Why else would he blow off thousands of dollars of readily available journalistic work?

Thompson did not become a success without thousands of hours of work. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas didn’t arise mystically from an opium cloud, despite the ease and joy with which Hunter spooled out the first part of the story after his escape from Glitter Gulch. That ease was bought with dear time, stinging rejection, and relentless trial. Early on, Thompson embraced Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other lesser known but fiercely individualist writers, in some cases pouring their words through himself by retyping their novels. Despite the miserable conditions and self-inflicted deadline nightmares he endured while traveling through Latin America and filing stories of singular voice, he was learning to observe, interview, record, and write with engaging power. His instincts were sharpening; he needed fewer cuts to get to the meat of a story, and his teeth sank deeper into its bone — a vital trait in gnawing through the vile fat occluding the Nixon Era.

FREEZE THE STORY IN 1967, before Scanlan’s published the Kentucky Derby story that birthed gonzo journalism, before Thompson publicly became known as an inveterate drug-gobbler, before being teargassed and beaten while covering the Democratic National Convention in 1968 awakened his political instincts. Thompson’s hard work through the Sixties had created opportunties he never would’ve imagined 10 years prior. But he began to feel the will of other interests pressing on him. Editors wanted stories that he had no interest in writing. He’d roped himself into a white elephant of a “death of the American Dream” book whose lack of focus vexed him. Meanwhile, friends like William Kennedy were publishing their first novels, and obscure authors like Frederick Exley were crafting the sort of engaged, brutally real novels where biography, reportage, and opinion combined. And the hippie/acid movement and its music scene were being co-opted by the same Man who had commercialized the Beats—the same Man he felt was pressing him to cover topics he found uninspiring.

Maybe he dodged or dumped new assignments because of his rebellious wiring . . . or maybe, deep down, he knew that the work he’d create would be a compromise: a muzzled, pallid effort next to the joy he found in fiction, or the satisfaction he could take from his early-Sixties work for the National Observer and his first Hell’s Angels article.

And then he went to Chicago, and got smacked in the guts and gassed by Daley’s Gestapo. This led him to run for political office in Aspen, a quest that aligned him with Mexican-American radical lawyer and freelance hellraiser Oscar Zeta Acosta. In that time, his drive to write stories in his unique voice, without editorial or commerical fetters, contributed as much to the tone and style of the Kentucky Derby article as the demands of its deadline did. And his connection to Acosta drew his eye to document the politically charged murder of a Chicano journalist in LA.

Both of these aspects combined when he escaped to Las Vegas to write a quick pick-up story on a desert motorcycle race. He took Acosta with him to discuss the Salazar murder story outside the pressure cooker of East LA, let himself go a bit nuts, and then poured into the Mint 400 piece all the wild energy he couldn’t otherwise have expressed in his “straight” journalism. Assembled, like “Kentucky Derby,” as much from pure word-music as from last-minute jangled notes from the scene of the crime read straight into the record, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas became, to a degree of truth only Hunter could know, his first published novel.

DID THOMPSON-THE-FREELANCER die in Las Vegas? In Louisville, while tearing across the Derby with a horrified Ralph Steadman? When he signed his contract for the Angels book? When Nixon resigned? It begs the question of when Thompson-the-stereotype was born.

Despite its serialization in Rolling Stone, the book version of Vegas was not an instant countrywide hit. When he hit the campaign trail in early 1972, he could have called more reliably on Hell’s Angels as testimony to his reporting chops than on the Vegas saga, which was still far from bookshelves. Hunter was still finding his own stories while following the candidates to the White house in ’72, but his reputation for wild displays of drunkenness and drug abuse was growing. When fans, Hollywood types, and employers (especially Jann Wenner) began catering to that reputation, as though they were assigning work (or ascribing high crimes and misdemeanors) to “Raoul Duke, gonzo journalist” rather than the deep-thinking wordsmith who chose his linguistic weapons with painstaking precision, that’s when I believe Hunter began to die.

The tone of his second collection of letters becomes increasingly aggrieved: arguments over money, outrage at editors’ and critics’ misinterpretations, and increasing reliance on chemicals (instead of the stories) to get him to the high where he could express his unique journalistic truth. Fear and Loathing in America ends in 1976, after he’d filed major stories on Watergate, the fall of Saigon, Jimmy Carter, and Muhammad Ali (though he also failed miserably to fulfill his assignment to cover the Rumble in the Jungle, an echo of the wholesale abandonment of his post–Hell’s Angels opportunities). The words are undoubtedly his. But the booze is now always in the hand, the hash pipe always in the pocket, the hangers-on always pounding on the door, and the Doctor — rather than the writer — dragged reluctantly to the typewriter. Increasingly, you get stories more like “Fear and Loathing in Cozumel,” which has all of the drug binges and violent gyrations of Vegas, but very few of its hypocrisy-pricking realizations.

Little that Thompson wrote after his Watergate coverage so masterfully combined investigative journalism, his gut instincts about the human soul, an expert dose of gonzo embellishment, and his ache for justice. I’m not the first one to use the term self-parody for the final 25 years of his life. He no doubt cared about the form the words took, be they Vegas retreads like The Curse of Lono and “Fear and Loathing in Elko,” or what I consider the highlight of his later work, the San Francisco Examiner column he wrote in the Eighties. The constraints of word count, deadline, and frankness of content under which he wrote that column might seem alien to someone who idolizes the Campaign Trail ’72 Thompson: when he was jamming On The Road–like scrolls of wisdom through the Mojo Wire, bare hours before press time, liberally salted with pigfuckers and shitheels.

Though he did his best to dent the deadlines, the collected Examiner columns in A Generation of Swine are tightly controlled hits of righteous anger and fantasy that read more like his best letters . . . the word choices and structure of which, according to all accounts, he labored over like a master sculptor. Is it wrong to say a little discipline led to Thompson’s best Eighties work? That passing his words through one of those big-city editors he used to view with such suspicion magnified his power by focusing his wit and efforts? Is his later, less regulated output proof that one has passed his or her peak when he or she refuses to hear any form of the word “no”? And what does this say about the unmoderated and immoderate blogosphere, and the value of a skilled and empathetic editor to the reader and the writer?

BUT I DIGRESS. As a budding freelancer, it’s the Thompson of the early 1960s who interests me most. He may have grumbled about the errands his journalism forced him to undertake — into the bowels of Latin America or the dusty back roads of the American West — but you can find passion in those words, even outrage. He agonized as a journalist while his novels languished. But decades later, you can still feel his wonder at Hemingway’s choice to end his life someplace as unbefitting and obscure as Ketchum, Idaho. You still sense his professionally understated disgust at the rotund Brit driving golfballs from a penthouse over the roofs of a Colombian slum. And his letters often reveal his joy over a well-written news story, even as he wishes the words had been printed within the dustjacket of his first published novel.

My goals going forward are, as an editor, to find good writing and help make it great; as a proofreader, to correct inevitable human and mechanical errors while observing the art and intent of the work’s designer and compositor; and as a writer, to bring stories to readers with style and craft. Although I’m not sure which will represent the greater share of my career, passion is integral to all three. I’m not getting into this career for “success,” but rather, to succeed — by fulfilling the above promises as best I can. I surely don’t intend to become the next Hunter S. Thompson, a quest that has mired many and perhaps even killed a few.

If Thompson-the-freelancer proved anything, it’s that dedicated practice, diligent market research, engaged reportage, and faith in one’s talent are the keys to creating opportunities and opening new markets. Had he not been toiling throughout the Southern Hemisphere, he never may have come to the attention of Carey McWilliams at The Nation, who commissioned Hunter to get the story on those bearded barbarians terrorizing California astride their roaring chrome thrones. Even if his post–Hell’s Angels writing didn’t exploit all of the journalistic opportunities that the book opened to him, the point is that it still got Thompson’s foot into many more doors, and vindicated the sweat and care he’d invested into his writing since the days of the Eglin Air Force Base newspaper, when his drugs of choice still were tobacco, caffeine, Kentucky bourbon, and beer.

My task is to find those places where I can both work with passion and continue to advance as a professional. If a salaried position in the publishing world no longer offers that, then I’ve gotta do it freelance. In that respect, the example of Hunter Thompson’s earlier, hungrier life is — to echo his favorite Keats riff — “all ye know, and all ye need to know.”

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