Remembering Hunter S. Thompson: 1937-2005

Beth Rankin

There is a favorite quote of Hunter S. Thompson’s which appears frequently in his writing, something Voltaire once wrote that appealed to Thompson’s sensibilities as both a journalist and a humanist:

“One owes respect to the living: To the Dead one owes only the truth.”

The truth is a difficult thing to give Thompson.

Immeasurably influential as a pioneer of journalists being a part of the story, Thompson is a mythical figure, a Paul Bunyan for acid heads, disaffected politicos and hung-up American dreamers — but the myth is, admittedly, largely one of his own invention.

So much so, even his exact date of birth is unknown, although reports say he was either 65 or 67 when he killed himself with a gunshot to the head on Sunday.

Suddenly, America had lost its greatest living writer.

Thompson is a true original, credited alongside Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese as a pioneer of what is widely called “new journalism,” although he developed his style separately.

In fact, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” the article which first made use of this “technique,” was written as a result of his being too drunk to cover the actual event, writing about his personal experience instead. Inebriation, too, would become a recurring theme.

He dubbed this approach “gonzo journalism,” something he said was based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism, and the best journalists have always known this.

Realizing, as all good journalists do, that no journalist can be truly objective, Thompson made no bones about taking his coverage of sports, politics and the American Dream to subjective extremes:

“Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism—which is true, but they miss the point,” he once wrote about his coverage of the former president. “It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. . . . You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”

Of course, this principle is disturbingly relevant to (although shamefully absent from) our times; whether this speaks well for Thompson or poorly for our times is up the reader to decide.

For Thompson’s take, when asked about George W. Bush, he frequently said he was “nostalgic for Nixon.”

Perhaps it’s all part of the cyclical nature of American History. Regardless, Thompson was — to adapt a favorite phrase of his — riding the crest of a high wave when he went out.

Over half a century after the “war to end all wars” and standing now more than ever in the shadow of Vietnam, these times are strangely in tune with those Thompson’s heyday, and he’s reemerged as a cultural icon.

Though a commercial disaster at the time of its release, the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has become a cult classic, the DVD being a staple in seemingly every college dorm room. Even people who are unaware of the book’s existence claim it as their favorite movie.

The film plays heavily on the hallucinogenic aspects of the book, and does a great deal to reinforce the image of Thompson as a drug-addled outlaw, the nightmarish antithesis of James Dean (Thompson, under the alias of “Raoul Duke,” is the main character).

Much like Thompson’s own autobiographical writing, it makes him a wild caricature of the person who he truly is, even if it diminishes some of the book’s themes.

Thompson set out to be a modern day Horatio Alger, a chronicler of the American Dream as it had been changed by drugs, Watergate, rock ‘n’ roll and civil rights. In doing so, he said he only found the death of the American Dream.

But I digress. Thompson created a new one, the American Dream as the pursuit of freedom, whether it be to drive intoxicated with the top down through the desert highway at speeds in excess of 100 m.p.h. or abandon all reasonable standards of morality and decency to tell the truth un-slant.

As a writer who dared to say what others did not, Thompson openly wrote that Nixon was “a liar, a quitter and a bastard. A cheap crook and a merciless war ciriminal”— and this in Nixon’s obituary.

One owes respect to the living: To the Dead one owes only the truth.

And it is in this spirit that we should remind ourselves that Thompson, too, could be quite a bastard. Just try seeking out any number of Q & A interviews he did with amateur journalists where he viciously insults their interview skills, or see Steven Paul Davies’ biography of renegade film director Alex Cox for an account of how he was fired from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for refusing to drop acid with Thompson during the film’s pre-production.

Nevertheless, Thompson’s death offers many exciting prospects, even if that does sound insensitive to those who don’t reflect on death by celebrating life.

There is a wonderful documentary on the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Criterion Collection DVD in which Thompson designs a monument to be built on the grounds of his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Co. after his death. It is a double-thumbed fist — the Gonzo symbol — which will shoot his ashes out of a cannon while Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” plays.

Whether or not this will become a reality is unclear, although a news article yesterday had a family friend confirming Thompson’s son does, indeed, recognize his father wanted his ashes to be shot out of “a cannon.”

Film crews had also been commissioned by Thompson to follow him over the past few decades, taping his every move as part of a planned documentary. In accordance with the literary Thompson of his own invention, it’s arrogant, self-indulgent and excessive. But it just might reveal the real human being who he did his best to conceal.

So maybe the infamous Thompson quote, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone — but they’ve always worked for me,” isn’t the most representative of who he was as a human being. But then again, it’s probably the one he would have wanted at the end of his obituary. And, as John Ford once said, When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.

So fuck it. Thompson, wherever he is, is higher than heaven, and that’s nothing to be sad about.

Contact pop arts reporter Jon Dieringer at [email protected].