Hunter S Thompson’s death has left a gaping hole in the ranks of American counter-culture. Thompson fan Kate Taylor reflects on the events of his singular life, and his ongoing influence on writers today
Monday February 21, 2005
“By any accepted standard, I have had more than nine lives. I counted them up once and there were 13 times I almost and maybe should have died”
On hearing that Hunter S Thompson, the maverick voice of American counterculture, had been found dead at his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, friend and fellow-author Martin A Lee described his death as “sad” but “not surprising”.
The mood among commentators following the announcement of his death this morning was equally resigned: the subtext to the many radio and television reports of his apparent suicide was that such an act was a fitting, if tragic, end to a remarkably singular life.
And Thompson’s life was nothing if not surprising. He famously and fully embraced an unconventional lifestyle, summing up his attitude to fast living with the iconic phrase: “I do not advocate the use of dangerous drugs, wild amounts of alcohol and violence and weirdness – but they’ve always worked for me.” His house was most famously home to a collection of peacocks, but he allegedly also kept a keg of gunpowder in his basement, and on one occasion accidentally shot an assistant. His major foray into public life occurred in 1970, when he decided that “there might be some serious fun in politics” and duly stood for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on a platform of drug decriminalisation. The Republican candidate sported a crew cut, which prompted the contrary author to shave his head entirely and refer to his rival as “my long-haired opponent” throughout the campaign. He lost by a handful of votes.
Thompson began his career in journalism in 1956, working as a sports reporter for the base paper at Eglin air force base in Florida. By all accounts, the strictures of army life did not suit the man who once described himself as “a dangerous drunken screwball”, but after his (honourable) discharge he stuck with journalism. While writing for various magazines, he produced two serious novels (Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary) and numerous short stories, none of which were published until his break came in 1966 when he pitched an article to Harper’s Magazine about his time with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, then associated with lurid rumours of murder and gang-rape. After that he had little trouble persuading Rolling Stone magazine to serialise what became his best known work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The novel, subsequently made into a film starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, is the first-person account of a trip to Las Vegas. In a skewed take on the road trip genre, the narrator-journalist and his companion aim to cover a narcotics convention and a motorcycle race, but are sidetracked by a search for the American dream, assisted by a colourful palette of substances (LSD, ether, adrenochrome and ibogaine to name a few). This powerful, absurd tale of self-destruction soon became a psychedelic classic and delivered Thompson a cult following, as well as founding his reputation as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. It also epitomised the way in which Thompson’s life and writing were intertwined. His conviction that: “truth is weirder than any fiction I’ve seen” lead him to invent a style of journalism to which he gave the soubriquet ‘gonzo’: a vivid, outlandish blend of fact and fiction in which the writer features prominently. In Fear and Loathing, the narrator and his “300 pound Samoan” attorney companion are barely-disguised versions of Thompson himself and his friend and lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta.
Following the publication of Fear and Loathing, Dr Thompson (the doctorate apparently arrived by mail order at some point during the 60s) has remained embedded in America’s cultural consciousness, his prose and lifestyle both condemned and celebrated by ensuing generations. A self-styled political and social commentator, he described his journalist’s “beat” as the death of the American dream. His follow-up to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, a savage and subversive account of the US presidential electoral process in which he preempted the verdict of the Watergate scandal saying that “Nixon represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise”. His latest book, Hey Rube: Blood Sport, The Bush Doctrineand the Downward Spiral of Dumbness (2004) is equally forthright about the current administration. When asked in an interview about the modern impact of fear, the commodity inevitably linked to his name, he replied: “This country has been having a nationwide nervous breakdown since 9/11 … But I don’t think fear is a very effective way of dealing with things, of responding to reality. Fear is just another word for ignorance.”
Hunter S Thompson thoroughly adhered to his own belief that “Freedom is something that dies unless it’s used”. In 2003 he was asked if, in spite of regularly proclaiming its demise, he hadn’t in some sense lived the American Dream itself. “Goddammit!” he replied, dismayed. “I haven’t thought about it that way. I suppose you could say that in a certain way I have.”
Thompson saw himself in the tradition of great American iconoclasts – Hemmingway, Twain, Mailer, Kerouac – even naming his son after F Scott Fitzgerald. For many, the ‘new journalism’ movement of the 1960s, a forthright style associated with writers such as Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, reached its peak in his searing, snearing prose. His nihilistic energy skewered the unique insanity of the 1960s, and while some felt that he lost his focus in later years, his influence is undeniable. PJ O’Rourke and Timothy Edwards Jones are acknowledged descendants, but his arrogant poetry resurfaces today in everything from Will Self’s novels to Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends. The crazed journalist at the heart of his own investigation is now a commonplace – some might say too commonplace – but what gave Thompson such lasting appeal was his whole-heartedness, the conviction behind all the posturing which still feels genuinely revolutionary.
When asked in a recent interview if he had any regrets, his response was dimissive. “Those I have are so minor. Would I leave my Keith Richards hat with the silver skull on it in the coffee shop at LaGuardia? I wouldn’t do that again. But overall, no. I don’t have any regrets.”