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Hunter S. Thompson’s Cultural Odyssey By: George Shadroui
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, March 15, 2005

It was a cool fall morning and gray clouds stretched from above to the horizon, until water and sky merged into an indistinguishable gray tapestry.

I walked along the beach as the waves crashed nearby and spotted a college friend wandering down the beach. Not far from me, planted in the sand, was his bottle of Jack Daniels.

“He’s starting early,” I thought. And when he finally reached me, he was gazing into a place that only those who do LSD or other drugs regularly have seen. “Bats,” he kept saying. “Bats.” And he flung his hands fruitlessly at shadows in the air.


Even then, a college student in the late 1970s on the brink of a journalism career, I found the scene pathetic, if somewhat comical. Drugs and alcohol never appealed to me and I was mostly immune to the pressures of conformity that afflict many young people. Yet this was the world bequeathed to us by Hunter S. Thompson and a host of other counter-culture figures who practiced juvenile delinquency as a career choice. The beach scene, of course, was a reenactment from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Thompson describes a flock of bats descending on his convertible as he and a fellow traveler indulged an endless variety of drugs.


Still, you did not study journalism in the 1970s or early 1980s without hearing paeans to Thompson. He was an icon during the age of “gonzo” or “new journalism.” Along with Tom Wolfe, Timothy Crouse, George Plimpton, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Gay Talese, etc., he was one of the prominent practitioners of this “new” style of non-fiction writing.


New Journalism aimed to peel back layers of contrived respectability and take readers into uncharted places using the techniques of a novelist: dialogue, scene-setting, and penetrating analysis complemented by in-depth interviews. The focus was often not on the official event or the person being profiled, but on the backdrop that gave the story texture.  By going behind the scenes, and exposing the most intimate thoughts and actions of the people in the story, the writer could pierce the layers of PR officialdom that hid reality. And it worked. When practiced by talented writers, new journalism approached art. It had energy and voice and it made for riveting reading.


The new journalists, however, were an eclectic group. Wolfe turned his considerable skills on the left, exposing the self righteous hypocrisy of liberal/left icons like Leonard Bernstein, Ken Kesey and the Black Panthers. Joan Didion began her career writing for Bill Buckley’s National Review, but she made her biggest splash documenting the twisted dreams of California suburbanites in Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Plimpton transformed himself into a minor celebrity by inserting himself into the world of sports, with Paper Lion being his most notable “new journalism” effort. And then there was Thompson who aimed not only to write about but to immerse himself totally in the dark places of American culture, where fear and loathing ruled. The Hell’s Angels, Vegas, Los Angeles, drugs, pornography, sexual deviancy, violence – this was the stuff that transformed Hunter S. into a living legend. He reached the pinnacle of American marketing; he became a brand.


To understand Hunter S. Thompson, I suppose, it might not hurt for a moment to revisit the writings of Nietzsche, who debunked classical ideas about morality, God and even human compassion. Nietzsche had no use for the weak or the timid, and argued that most of people live lives of quiet desperation, unable to escape the limitations of a repressive collective culture.  


Along came the late 1950s and1960s. The beat generation and then the counter-culture clan ripped off at least a piece of Nietzsche and unleashed sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. What to some was nothing more than adults trying to cling to perpetual adolescence was to others a grand revelation. No person personified this cult of excess more than Hunter S., whose forays into every vice known to human nature made him rich, though not happy. In one of his rambling books, Kingdom of Fear, Thompson writes:


I was a notorious best-selling author of weird and brutal books and also a widely feared newspaper columnist with many separate agendas and many powerful friends in government, law enforcement, and sociopolitical circles.


I was also drunk crazy, and heavily armed at all times. People trembled and cursed when I came into a public room….


He was nevertheless the toast of journalism sub-culture. He got writing gigs in prominent magazines and newspapers: Rolling Stone, Playboy, The National Observer, the Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle. A couple of his books were made into movies and he was lionized if also satirized in Garry Trudeau’s Doonsebury comic strip. He enjoyed the praise of respected historians and writers like Wolfe, David Halberstam, Timothy Ferris and Douglas Brinkley. Plimpton cast a more critical eye, arguing that Thompson was more persona than serious writer. Whatever the case, he influenced many young journalists. As one commentator observed: “Hunter was surrounded by acolytes, suck-____, sycophants, brown-noses and people who had something to gain from association with him. He gonzo approach tended to infect the other writers, the lesser writers at Rolling Stone.” (As quoted in Hunter)


Thompson was fortunate in timing. He was precisely the kind of journalist the 1960s needed, a modern-day Peter Pan wrestling unto death with shadows in his own twisted Neverland. Only it was not a place of dreams and high adventure but a journey of low adventure lived out as a surreal nightmare. He was Howard Stern with a dictionary. Such people get your attention the same way an accident on the highway causes you instinctively to gawk. But gawking is not a thoughtful response and what you conclude – reading though his collections of letters and journals -- is that this self-absorbed, violent guy was not someone with whom you would want to spend much time. His entourage consisted mainly of weaker folks who knelt slavishly before his altar of excess.


Thompson claimed to confront the world but actually he surrendered to it. The world was a violent place, so he immersed himself in violent behavior of one sort or another. The world can be a seedy place, so he did the world one better and became the seediest person he could manage to be. Having witnessed the loss of several children through miscarriage or still-born births, he chose to anesthetize himself with alcohol, drugs and sex and to treat as disposable many of the people he encountered. He never went calling on any higher angels, just tough guys on motorcycles.


And it was all a lie. By that, I mean the 1960s, Nietzsche, drugs, sex as nirvana, the hot-tub of perpetual adolescence – a bald-faced lie sold to America’s youth by smut peddlers, leftist radicals and celebrity-obsessed elites who made much of their attempts to save the world yet could not raise their own children responsibly.


At the end of the day, he had only one act and he could not bring himself to escape the persona that brought him booty, booze, broads and boatloads of drugs. To do so would be to betray his slavish commitment to nihilism. Anyway, no one would have paid to see him grow up. He was a freak show that kept paying off and there were just enough groupies and wannabes hanging around to make him believe that perhaps he was a special after all. 


Alas, old age inevitably descended, and having never cultivated a talent for the quiet normalcy that most healthy people learn to enjoy, Thompson confronted the chasm of darkness that was his life. But even in death he remained the same self-centered guy. His death was planned to shock an audience. He made his son’s family, who was in the house, and his latest wife, who was on the phone with him at the time, witnesses to the last tragic act. His wife heard the click over the phone as he put the gun in his mouth and ended his life. His son, after finding his father dead, rushed outside and fired a gun three times into the night air.


Not with a whimper but a bang? Hardly.

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