Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005

"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me."
Hunter S. Thompson

What a terrible piece of news to hear. The suicide of Hunter S. Thompson may be the most shocking public death for me of someone I admired since Kurt Cobain, and has left me and many other fans of the man's writing aghast, and wondering why?

Like many a young punk journalist of the last 25 years or so, Thompson was a huge influence on my way of thinking. His free-wheeling hybrid of fiction, nonfiction and hyperbole was so unique that they had to create a new genre for it -- "Gonzo" journalism. He was a combination reporter, gadfly, lunatic and modern-day H.L. Mencken, and through the 1970s, his talent was white-hot and unassailable. After that, yeah, the quality of his work began dropping off, and frankly little written after 1985 or so is equal to what came before. My own writing's never come within a mile of HST, but I think the thing he taught me the most is the value of unpredictability, in my own work and in the people I edit.

Thompson's "Hell's Angels," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear And Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72" and the overlooked but tremendous two books of his collected letters are all required reading for anyone who wants to make their living with words. But I never wanted to hit Las Vegas with a trunk full of ether and guns and be like him; I'm a lightweight self-abuser, and I was happy to be an armchair freak, someone the real Thompson probably would've dismissed with a grunt.

Thompson lived such a crazy life, so full of ridiculous excess that far too many of his fans thought that was the key to his talent rather than hard work. You never knew quite how much of his drug using, gun shooting and insanity was hype, and how much was reality. I never expected Thompson to die quietly in his bed, but at the same time, he made it to his 60s, and we all halfways figured he was immortal. Nothing else could kill him, so he killed himself. What made him do it? Will we ever know? Was it illness, terminal cancer eating at his guts; had he finally gotten so sick of the whole mess of life that he wanted it over? Like Cobain, you're wondering, why did he do this damned stupid thing, what was in his head telling him to pull that trigger? Suicide is the ultimate black, the void that doesn't answer back.

I met him once, briefly, in New Orleans in 1994, and had him sign a copy of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." There's even a goofy picture of me with him somewhere; his head and hand is shrouded in bandages, which seems so utterly HST I couldn't make it up. That strange day was grist for a column I wrote once, one I'll have to put up here sometime this week. It was a day like Thompson himself, unpredictable, rude and a bit disappointing, but I'm glad I met him at least once, to see if the legends were true.

There weren't many like Thompson. He left us in the most violent, brutal way a man can, with questions, anger and strange dark thoughts left behind. We'll scrutinize the tributes, eulogies and pointless investigations that'll follow, trying to find a clue somewhere in there. I don't think we will. The books are left behind to speak to us, and although I won't be able to read them now without a wince of grim feeling at how Hunter's story ended, I'll still read them. They're bigger than the man.

Adios, Raoul Duke, the good doctor, and I'm wishing for a gentler life for you on the other side.

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