Monday, February 21, 2005

Goodnight, Doctor Thompson.

I’ve been scrounging the wires and blogosphere for more on the death of Hunter S. Thompson, self-professed outlaw journalist, and the author of many strange and pointed commentaries on America and the "American Dream," and it’s hard to find anyone with the words to describe the impact he had on American writing, literature, and culture.

Tblogger juniperflux sent me this link to the Associated Press obituary.

James Lileks responds, somewhat coldly, but with some admiration as well: I feel sorry for him, but I’ve felt sorry for him for years. File under Capote, Truman – meaning, whatever you thought of the latter-day persona, don’t forget that there was a reason he had a reputation. Read "Hell's Angels." That was a man who could hit the keys right.

Sadly, Thompson’s latest writings, the column "Hey, Rube!" on fell depressingly short of his earlier work - Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, Songs of the Doomed, Generation of Swine, The Great Shark Hunt, and many others.

But it is that body of work that will be remembered, along with his legendary ability to project himself into a situation, usually while full of mind-altering chemicals, and become an important part of the story himself, and emerge eventually holding reams of scrawled notes and miles of audiotape that he would turn into a gripping commentary not only on what he’d set out to cover, but the state of American society itself – it was this that he eventually came to call "gonzo journalism."

I came to Thompson late in the game, and probably by one of the cheapest channels - Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. I was in college, at a friend’s house. A party was announced down at the riverside, but a friend and I had noticed the opening credits of the movie, with blood spattering across the black screen to form the title. From the first words - We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold - we were mesmerized. The rest of the crowd filtered away, but Joey and I stayed.

I read the book as soon as I could get my hands on it, and was amazed at Thompson’s almost crazed take on narrative. There are moments of hilarity, fear, and reckless use of drugs, but there was something else in there, too... something that strung it all together, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I went to a conservative Catholic college, but the library had one book by Thompson - his first, Hell’s Angels. Written before he had plunged headlong into the acid culture of ‘60s San Francisco, Hell’s Angels is a chronicle of time Thompson spent with the Angels, who were then a ferocious group of outlaws who claimed that no law enforcement agency in the country could contain them. Originally setting out to do a freelance newspaper piece on the gang, who had gained notoriety in California after allegations of a gang-rape arose, Thompson eventually wound up spending nearly a year with the Angels, buying a huge Triumph motorcycle himself to ride on with them as they cruised the West Coast striking fear into the hearts of citizens and lawmen wherever they went.

I could go on for ages about Thompson’s work, and how each piece somehow captures a weird, specific moment in time, from the minutiae of his hotel room’s furnishings to the greater conflicts plaguing society at the time, but I think this quote from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, thoughtfully transcribed at Tim Blair, sums it up well:

It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—that kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run...

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket ... booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end ... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was ... You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning ...

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ...

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

That was around 34 years ago, and now, on a rainy Presidents’ Day near his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, I offer The Good Doctor my fondest farewell, and sincerest thanks for the impact he’s had on me and, I’m sure, countless others.

He wasn’t understood by everyone, he was hated by some, but I know there are those of us who will miss him dearly.

R.I.P., Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005.