Hunter S. Thompson: 1937 - 2005

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Sun Feb 27 19:52:23 PST 2005


Posted on Sun, Feb. 27, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson: 1937 - 2005
The writing...
The Kansas City Star

 "Gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson shot himself a week ago today, but
he had put a bullet in his writing career years ago.

The Denver Post reported last week that Thompson, 67, had been in pain
after a broken leg and hip surgery. But Juan Thompson, his son, made it
clear we may never know all the details; in a statement to the Aspen Daily
News, he said, "Hunter prized his privacy, and we ask that his friends and
admirers respect that privacy as well as that of his family."

That's fine. But Thompson didn't appear to be as private as his son
implied. No, Thompson often lived a life that was very public and marked by

The writer himself seemed ambivalent. On some occasions he claimed tales of
his drug use were exaggerated. On others he bragged that booze, pills,
weed, acid and other substances helped make him creative.

Early on, maybe they did. There was no denying the cracked brilliance of
1970s works such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which wallowed in the
drug culture but told some truths many Americans didn't want to hear, or
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, which dug deep into the dirt
of presidential politics.

In 1979 Thompson published The Great Shark Hunt, a collection of shorter
works, many of which had appeared in Rolling Stone. Like the two Fear and
Loathing books, many of these pieces were "gonzo"; that is, the journalist
becoming part of the story.

Classic example: "Freak Power in the Rockies," which had appeared in
Rolling Stone in 1970. It was a piece based on one of Thompson's elaborate
jokes on society 
 in this case, running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo.

His platform was absurd: Sod the streets, change the name of Aspen to "Fat
City" to keep "land-rapers and other human jackals from capitalizing on the
name" and otherwise harass developers from transforming Aspen into a
playground for the rich.

But guess what? Thompson was serious about his fears over rampant
development and actually did run for sheriff and came close to winning, so
close that he served on a sheriff's advisory committee and ultimately
wielded influence in Aspen's preservation.

By the early 1980s, though, his writing ability had plummeted. The Curse of
Lono, a book about marathon runners, was a mess. His fire-and-gasoline
prose was gone, replaced by self-parody. No wonder: Thompson was consuming
massive amounts of alcohol and cocaine, according to Paul Perry's 1992
biography, Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S.

Even hardcore partiers such as the late John Belushi couldn't match him.
Perry's book states that Belushi once stayed with Thompson in Colorado a
few days; upon departing, the comedian said: "I had to leave. I couldn't
keep up with that guy."

Neither, really, could Thompson. Generation of Swine, Songs of the Doomed
and Better Than Sex, published from 1988 to 1994, were addled, woefully
thin works.

Things seemed to improve with 1997's The Proud Highway and 2000's Fear and
Loathing in America, the first two volumes of Thompson's letters. Here was
the inferno we'd been missing! But the truth was the most recent of these
letters had been written in 1976. Remove the time warp, and one was stuck
knowing Thompson's great work was behind him.

The man was suffering, too. His marriage to Sandra Dawn Thompson was long
over; she would later confess she had come to fear him. In 1990 a woman
accused him of sexual assault; a subsequent search of Thompson's home led
to drug charges as well. Eventually the whole thing was dropped (by that
time, Thompson could afford good lawyers). In July 2000 he accidentally
shot his assistant, Deborah Fuller, allegedly while chasing a bear off his
property. She was not seriously injured.

Amazingly, she stayed with him. I interviewed Thompson in December 2000,
and to do so I had to deal with Fuller first. Both she and Thompson sounded
seriously on edge at the time. When she finally managed to get him to the
phone (it took several days), he obviously was into the sauce.

For the last four years Thompson mostly had managed to stay out of the
news, and had remarried 
 to yet another assistant, Anita, who apparently
had better luck with him. Hey, Rube, published last summer, was not vintage
Thompson, but the collection wasn't awful, either. Was he reforming? Who

Hunter S. Thompson will be remembered as much for his persona as his
writing. Look, everyone is young once. Writers tend to be not only young
but also a little crazy. If we're lucky, that period of our lives results
in a surfeit of energy that makes the pages crackle; over time, we temper.
Old and crazy, though, can be ugly. Ernest Hemingway died that way - and
from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, just like Thompson.

Both of them had written well. Both had lived hard. I'm not saying either
of them should have become a vegetarian or a temperance crusader, but a
little more self-respect might have gone a long way toward ensuring their
later writings didn't suffer so much. So while it may sound heretical to
their many fans, I must stand by this conclusion: Both of them could have
done it all better.

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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