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Remembering Hunter S. Thompson
Phoenix writers reflect on the gonzo journalist

Outrage with a cigarette holder

Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas provoked the rerelease of the book and a reprint in Rolling Stone. I read the opening line: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." I probably hadn’t read that line since 1972, and I hadn’t read any Hunter S. Thompson seriously (that is, I never ventured much beyond the first sentence) in years. But, reading that line in 1998, I realized it was as resonant for me as any opening sentence in American literature — Salinger, Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, you name it.

And it made me realize also that in 1971, we journalism students read Thompson as "alternative" or "new" journalism, sure. It was a given — that’s what we were about. But Thompson wasn’t as important to us as a journalist as he was as a literary stylist — a satirist whose sharp eye for social hypocrisy combined with a sure control of the American vernacular could be traced back to Twain. As I read the Rolling Stone excerpt, I realized I remembered just about every word. My roommates and I had read it aloud, quoted it. There they were, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, his 300-pound Samoan attorney, driving the Great Red Shark through the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. "My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process." The very soul of wit, that final qualifier! The elevated diction joined with self-confessed "depraved" activities. That was Thompson the "Gonzo" journalist, but also the controlled stylist, who viewed himself with the same jaundiced eye he cast on small-town sheriffs and national political candidates. He was a cursing scourge whose foul mouth was punctuated with a cigarette on the end of cigarette holder, like FDR or Noël Coward. Low blows delivered in high style.

Thompson’s language — a "highly personal controlled rant," the New York Times obit called it — was as shocking in its context (American political journalism) as Salinger’s and Twain’s were in theirs. Yes, he put himself at the center of his stories — as a character, as a point of view. But he always had a story to tell, and the narrative skill and descriptive powers to pull it off. His dispatches always came from the "sports desk," and in the end he really did write for ESPN.com. In those columns, there was only the rant, and no real stories, no characters other than the sound of his own voice. But for a while, at least, Thompson was a latter-day innocent abroad, right here on native soil, calling out the fakes and phonies, earning every epithet and expletive.

— Jon Garelick

Pearls before swine

My encounter with Hunter S. Thompson had every element I could hope for and still live to talk about it: drunkenness, treachery, anarchy, outlandish fabrication, mob violence, human ugliness and folly, diabolical irony, mortal peril, and, of course, fear and loathing. It was a learning experience.

In 1989 I was still a fan, though I felt Thompson had been in steady decline since Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. Maybe Nixon’s election broke his heart. Nonetheless, I was thrilled when the people at the Somerville Theatre invited me to head a panel of journalists to interview Thompson, who was promoting his latest book, Generation of Swine.

As expected, Thompson arrived an hour and a half late, drunk, disoriented, and annoyed that he wouldn’t be taking questions directly from the audience. They were mostly male college undergrads, seething with dangerous energy during the long wait, who were trying to make up for Thompson’s absence by imitating him, getting drunk and obnoxious. I was relieved when their hero finally stepped on stage — and then alarmed by how quickly the crowd degenerated into a howling lynch mob, whipped up by Thompson, targeting myself and the rest of the panel.

"Who are these assholes?" the audience screamed, referring to us. "Get off the fucking stage!"

"Who’s in charge here?" Thompson demanded.

"I am," I admitted, "ostensibly."

"Well, you aren’t any longer." Thunderous applause.

Though humiliated, we did escape with our lives.

The program continued with wanna-be Gonzo-ites asking such trenchant questions as "What’s your favorite drug?" (answer: "What have you got?") and "What do you think of sex on acid?" ("I don’t know, you got some acid?"). As the performance droned on, it dawned on me that Thompson had at least as much disdain for his adulators as he did for us "establishment" pretenders. In the end he smashed his fist on the table, sending his bottle of Chivas flying. "Don’t bitch at me like some shit-eating fools!" he groaned. "Don’t bitch and moan to me and ask me what to do with your lives! Go register to vote! Fuck you!"

Thus castigated, they devoutly filed to the stage to get their copies of his book autographed. But it was the beginning of the end. People got tired of that voice from the wilderness, scourging them with contempt for their failings and prophesying their doom. They preferred voices that made them feel good about themselves and encouraged them to direct their wrath at other people.

Maybe a prophet is most disturbing when he has failed. Years after my brush with Thompson’s wrath, I recognize he was neither sybaritic nor psychedelic, but evangelical. In an essay in the aptly titled Generation of Swine, he says the literary source from which he borrowed the most was the Book of Revelations. Repent, sinners! Or at least vote. Maybe what put him over the edge was the victory of a presidential candidate he despised even more than Nixon, and who might be more apocalyptic than Thompson was himself.

— Peter Keough

Tricky Dick redux

Like a generation of readers, I revere Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 drugs-and-paranoia-fueled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And if there has ever been a better presidential-campaign book than Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, I am not aware of it. You never knew whether a lot of the stuff Thompson wrote was real or made up — and unlike lesser lights, he didn’t try to fool you one way or the other. But Thompson’s work was always true, far truer than the objective journalism of his day.

A true story: in the mid ’70s, I was working as a Northeastern co-op student for the Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Call. George McGovern was speaking at Suffolk University, and I had a chance to shout a question at him afterward. I remembered that Thompson, in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, had portrayed McGovern’s first running mate, Senator Tom Eagleton, as being far more mentally ill than had ever been publicly acknowledged. In that light, Thompson saw McGovern’s decision to replace Eagleton with Sargent Shriver as patriotic rather than politically craven, since McGovern had privately concluded he could not allow Eagleton to get into a position where he might actually become president.

I asked McGovern whether Thompson’s account was correct. He thought for a moment before calmly replying: yes. I felt as though I had a scoop of sorts.

(Note: For all I know, this is brutally unfair to Eagleton. We know far more about mental illness today than we did in the ’70s. I am simply reporting what Thompson wrote, and McGovern’s reaction to it.)

Perhaps Thompson’s last great piece of political writing was his 1994 obituary of Richard Nixon, published in Rolling Stone under the headline HE WAS A CROOK. Unfortunately, it’s been disappeared behind the Atlantic Monthly’s subscription-only Web site. But here is Thompson on the campaign trail ’04:

Richard Nixon looks like a flaming liberal today, compared to a golem like George Bush. Indeed. Where is Richard Nixon now that we finally need him?

"If Nixon were running for president today, he would be seen as a "liberal" candidate, and he would probably win. He was a crook and a bungler, but what the hell? Nixon was a barrel of laughs compared to this gang of thugs from the Halliburton petroleum organization who are running the White House today — and who will be running it this time next year, if we (the once-proud, once-loved and widely respected "American people") don’t rise up like wounded warriors and whack those lying petroleum pimps out of the White House on November 2nd.

Nixon hated running for president during football season, but he did it anyway. Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for — but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush-Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.

You bet. Richard Nixon would be my Man. He was a crook and a creep and a gin-sot, but on some nights, when he would get hammered and wander around in the streets, he was fun to hang out with. He would wear a silk sweat suit and pull a stocking down over his face so nobody could recognize him. Then we would get in a cab and cruise down to the Watergate Hotel, just for laughs.

Read the whole thing. And mourn.

— Dan Kennedy

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Issue Date: February 25 - March 3, 2005
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