As Gonzo in Life as in His Work

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Wed Feb 23 05:14:23 PST 2005


OpinionJournal - LEISURE & ARTS

As Gonzo in Life as in His Work
Hunter S. Thompson died as he lived.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005 12:01 a.m.

Hunter S. Thompson was one of those rare writers who come as advertised.
The Addams-family eyebrows in Stephen King's book jacket photos combined
with the heeby-jeeby horrors of his stories always made me think of
Dracula. When I finally met Mr. King, he was in Miami playing, along with
Amy Tan, in a jook-house band called the Remainders. He was Sunshine
itself, a laugh and a half, the very picture of innocent fun, a Count
Dracula who in real life was Peter Pan. Carl Hiaasen, the genius who has
written such zany antic novels as "Striptease," "Sick Puppy," and "Skinny
Dip" is in person as intelligent, thoughtful, sober, courteous, even
courtly, a Southern gentleman as you could ask for (and I ask for them all
the time and never find them). But the gonzo--Hunter's coinage--madness of
Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1971) and his Rolling
Stone classics such as "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" (1970)
was what you got in the flesh too. You didn't have lunch or dinner with
Hunter Thompson. You attended an event at mealtime.

 I had never met Hunter when the book that established him as a literary
figure, "The Hell's Angels, a Strange and Terrible Saga," was published in
1967. It was brilliant investigative journalism of the hazardous sort,
written in a style and a voice no one had ever seen or heard before. The
book revealed that he had been present at a party for the Hell's Angels
given by Ken Kesey and his hippie--at the time the term was not "hippie'
but "acid-head"--commune, the Merry Pranksters. The party would be a key
scene in a book I was writing, (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). I
cold-called Hunter in California, and he generously gave me not only his
recollections but also the audiotapes he had recorded at that first famous
alliance of the hippies and "outlaw" motorcycle gangs, a strange and
terrible saga in itself, culminating in the Rolling Stones band hiring the
Angels as security guards for a concert in Altamont, Calif., and the
"security guards" beating a spectator to death with pool cues.

 By way of a thank you for his help, I invited Hunter to lunch the next
time he was in New York. It was one bright spring day in 1969. He proved to
be one of those tall, rawboned, rangy young men with alarmingly bright
eyes, who more than any other sort of human, in my experience, are prone to
manic explosions. Hunter didn't so much have a conversation with you as
speak in explosive salvos of words on a related subject.

 We were walking along West 46th Street toward a restaurant, The Brazilian
Coffee House, when we passed Goldberg Marine Supply. Hunter stopped, ducked
into the store and emerged holding a tiny brown paper bag. A sixth sense,
probably activated by the alarming eyes and the six-inch rise and fall of
his Adam's apple, told me not to ask what was inside. In the restaurant he
kept it on top of the table as we ate. Finally, the fool in me became so
curious, he had to go and ask, "What's in the bag, Hunter?"

 "I've got something in there that would clear out this restaurant in 20
seconds," said Hunter. He began opening the bag. His eyes had rheostated up
to 300 watts. "No, never mind," I said. "I believe you! Show me later!"
>From the bag he produced what looked like a small travel-size can of
shaving foam, uncapped the top and pressed down on it. There ensued the
most violently brain-piercing sound I had ever heard. It didn't clear out
The Brazilian Coffee House. It froze it. The place became so quiet, you
could hear an old-fashioned timer clock ticking in the kitchen. Chunks of
churasco gaucho remained impaled on forks in mid-air. A bartender mixing a
sidecar became a statue holding a shaker with both hands just below his
chin. Hunter was slipping the little can back into the paper bag. It was a
marine distress signaling device, audible for 20 miles over water.

The next time I saw Hunter was in June of 1976 at the Aspen Design
Conference in Aspen, Colo. By now Hunter had bought a large farm near Aspen
where he seemed to raise mainly vicious dogs and deadly weapons, such as
the .357 magnum. He publicized them constantly as a warning to those,
Hell's Angels presumably, who had been sending him death threats. I invited
him to dinner at a swell restaurant in Aspen and a performance at the Big
Tent, where the conference was held. My soon-to-be wife, Sheila, and I gave
the waitress our dinner orders. Hunter ordered two banana daiquiris and two
banana splits. Once he had finished them off, he summoned the waitress,
looped his forefinger in the air and said, "Do it again." Without a
moment's hesitation he downed his third and fourth banana daiquiris and his
third and fourth banana splits, and departed with a glass of Wild Turkey
bourbon in his hand.

 When we reached the tent, the flap-keepers refused to let him enter with
the whiskey. A loud argument broke out. I whispered to Hunter. "Just give
me the glass and I'll hold under my jacket and give it back to you inside."
That didn't interest him in the slightest. What I failed to realize was
that it was not about getting into the tent or drinking whiskey. It was the
grand finale of an event, a happening aimed at turning the conventional
order of things upside down. By and by we were all ejected from the
premises, and Hunter couldn't have been happier. The curtain came down for
the evening.
In Hunter's scheme of things, there were curtains .. . and there were
curtains. In the summer of 1988 I happened to be at the Edinburgh Festival
in Scotland one afternoon when an agitated but otherwise dignified,
silver-haired old Scotsman came up to me and said, "I understand you're a
friend of the American writer Hunter Thompson."

 I said yes.

 "By God--your Mr. Thompson is supposed to deliver a lecture at the
Festival this evening--and I've just received a telephone call from him
saying he's in Kennedy Airport and has run into an old friend. What's wrong
with this man? He's run into an old friend? There's no possible way he can
get here by this evening!"

 "Sir," I said, "when you book Hunter Thompson for a lecture, you have to
realize it's not actually going to be a lecture. It's an event--and I'm
afraid you've just had yours."
Hunter's life, like his work, was one long barbaric yawp, to use Whitman's
term, of the drug-fueled freedom from and mockery of all conventional
proprieties that began in the 1960s. In that enterprise Hunter was
something entirely new, something unique in our literary history. When I
included an excerpt from "The Hell's Angels" in a 1973 anthology called
"The New Journalism," he said he wasn't part of anybody's group. He wrote
"gonzo." He was sui generis. And that he was.

 Yet he was also part of a century-old tradition in American letters, the
tradition of Mark Twain, Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby, comic writers
who mined the human comedy of a new chapter in the history of the West,
namely, the American story, and wrote in a form that was part journalism
and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention, and wilder
rhetoric inspired by the bizarre exuberance of a young civilization. No one
categorization covers this new form unless it is Hunter Thompson's own
word, gonzo. If so, in the 19th century Mark Twain was king of all the
gonzo-writers. In the 20th century it was Hunter Thompson, whom I would
nominate as the century's greatest comic writer in the English language.
Mr. Wolfe's latest book is "I Am Charlotte Simmons" (Farrar, Straus and

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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