Hunter S. Thompson (2/23/05)
December 26, 2006
Reading the many tributes to Hunter S. Thompson following news of his suicide earlier this week, I’m struck by the passionate admiration shown by bloggers like Digby and Steve Gilliard, and journos like Tom Wolfe and Larry Kramer. I’m also struck by the fact that many, in fact most, of the tributes are far more interesting and better-written than anything the Godfather of Gonzo ever cranked out, even at his peak.
In some ways, the reaction to Thompson’s suicide reminds me of the equally heartfelt mourning over the death of music critic Lester Bangs in 1982. Both men were word-drunk ravers who lived hard and gave themselves as much space as the putative subjects of whatever article they were writing. Both men labored to infuse idiosyncratic energy into the very lines of their writing, and sometimes came close to achieving their goals — Bangs more so than Thompson. Both men seemed to embody something crucial to the self-image of their admirers — to their friends, Bangs and Thompson were Huckleberry Finns in a world of Tom Sawyers. But when death took Bangs at the tender age of 33, he was only getting started — there was every reason to believe his best work was ahead of him, that he would blow the gates off the rock critic ghetto that nurtured him and take his inimitable style into the wider world. When Thompson took his own life at 67, his best work was decades behind him, and quite frankly it wasn’t aging all that well.
Thompson arose from the New Journalism of the late 1960s, when writers like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe infused reportage with the narrative techniques of the best fiction. In the hands of a Mailer or a Wolfe, the results could be spectacular; in the hands of less gifted writers, the results were endless reams of self-indulgent crap. Thompson was a particularly baleful influence to anyone who felt confined by the strictures of straight-up journalism. Hey, why bother getting your facts straight when you could spin out page after page of ornately crafted invective about how Richard Nixon was the reeking ball of pus at the heart of the American Dream? Trouble is, invective isn’t particularly hard to do — anyone who spent some quality time with a copy of H.L. Mencken’s Prejudices can do it in his sleep. (I speak from personal knowledge here.) Thompson’s magnum opus, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trial ’72, isn’t a patch on Miami and the Siege of Chicago when it comes to capturing the hallucinatory awfulness of mainstream American life and politics of the era. That’s because Norman Mailer knew when it was time to keep his eyes open and his mind clear — a knack Thompson never bothered to acquire.
Hunter S. Thompson is being memorialized as the drug-fueled visionary scold who exposed Richard Nixon as the embodiment of evil, but I doubt Nixon ever lost so much as a minute worrying about the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The irony is that when push came to shove, it was the straight journalists who played Van Helsing to Nixon’s Dracula and dragged him into the lethal sunlight. The answer to the absurdities of mainstream politics was not to drop mescaline, drink a case of tequila and crank out fifty pages of free-associated observations about your three-hundred-pound Samoan attorney friend. It was to follow the example of Joe McGinnis, whose book The Selling of the President 1968 delivered a knockout punch to the conventional wisdom journalism embodied by Theodore H. White and his The Making of the President series. I.F. Stone did more honest journalism in a day than Thompson did his whole life. Dan Rather didn’t have Thompson’s gifts as a writer, but he was the one who ended up giving Nixon nightmares. New Journalism produced some amazing writing, but the great thing about plain vanilla journalism is that you don’t have to be a genius to pull it off. You just have to keep asking questions.
One of the Thompson tributes on the Internet (I’ve lost track of which one — there are so many out there) mentions that as a young man, Thompson would type out copies of Ernest Hemingway’s novels in an attempt to understand how Hemingway pulled off his effects. Maybe he did the job too well. Like Hemingway, Thompson peaked early and vanished into a silly persona of his own creation: where Hemingway became Papa, the avuncular connoisseur of bullfighting and sport-fishing, Thompson became Uncle Duke, the perpetually drug-addled gun lover of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. It’s no secret that Thompson nurtured a decades-long grudge against Trudeau; it’s also undeniable that Uncle Duke captured the nasty clownishness underlying Thompson’s wild man of the mountains act. I gather that Thompson in person was endlessly charming and made friends easily. I’m sorry I never met him. But I’m not sorry that I left Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 in the dumpster along with a lot of other high school reading. The highway of excess doesn’t lead to the palace of wisdom, it leads to Generation of Swine and tiresome iterations of an act that had become stale, oh so very stale, long before the end.