Was just putzing around the News & Record office, waiting for the 10 p.m. news to begin, when I came across the April/May 2005 issue of AJR (American Journalism Review).
There’s a piece by White House correspondent Richard Keil about Hunter Thompson’s death – which, I realized as I read it, was more than a year ago. Keil, who also wrote this great piece for AJR about a night with Hunter years earlier.
Keil said Hunter might have liked that so many people will remember, for the rest of their lives, where they were when they heard he was dead.
I was in my apartment at Guilford Hall when Hunter killed himself in February of that year. A friend sent me a short, startling text message: “The AP is reporting Hunter Thompson dead.”
For a few hours I told myself he’d faked his own death or something. He was somewhere in the hills of Colorado laughing it up as he watched them write his obituaries – something his hero Ernest Hemingway had gotten to do more than once after a series of close calls. It made perfect sense – but it wasn’t the truth.
I was as inconsolibly depressed as my girlfriend had been the night Bush was re-elected. Nothing could make it right. I drank most of a bottle of Jack Daniels and sank down deep into my old, worn couch and wished he’d have given it a few more years. Going now – with Bush in office, with a war on, with journalism at an all time low…this was when we needed him most.
But, being Hunter, he’d run off when the fun stopped and stuck us with the hotel bill.
Which, the more I thought about it, seemed about right. So I shook off some of the gloom and most of the whiskey and started writing.
That week I wrote a piece for Go Triad about Hunter, a longer draft of which later ran The Carolinian. Rosemary Roberts, a former NYT reporter and journalism professor, stopped me on campus at UNCG after it ran to tell me she loved it. Looking back on it now, given how little time I had to turn it around and how upset I was, I think it holds up.
Thompson was hard to define. He was a gifted writer, inveterate gambler, admitted drug fiend and political junkie. He was probably best known as the author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – and he loved and loathed his celebrity. Unfortunately his public persona as the wild man of American letters came to overshadow his enormous talents and substantive contributions. He always wanted to be his generation’s Hemingway – and in some respects (substance abuse, battles with fame, a cult of personality) he certainly succeeded. But like Hemingway the work itself is so much more important than the legend.
With Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer Thompson pioneered a first-person brand of “New Journalism” that cut the form’s vaunted objectivity with the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain, the sneering contempt of H.L. Mencken and the crusading zeal of Upton Sinclair.
But of all the “New Journalists” of the late 1960s and ’70s, Thompson remained the most pure and wild. Wolfe chased the Great American Novel, getting further and further from his goal as years wore on. Breslin devolved into a curmudgeon caricature. Mailer disappeared into his own pretentiousness – before becoming a guest star on “Gilmore Girls.”
But Hunter was always Hunter, which is why he continued to appeal to and inspire new generations of young people who recognized his talent, who shared his passion and saw in him their most unbridled, brightly burning selves.
The most frustrating part about being a Hunter Thompson fan was, to me, dealing with other fans – many of whom never got any further into Hunter’s stuff than “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and saw in him and his career a way of justifying their desire to stay baked, be rude and live on their parents’ couch. Like Hemingway and Kerouac before him Hunter spawned a cult of personality that had very little to do with his real work – and it attracted some parasites.
My junior year of college I was an RA and, while doing a health and safety inspection of a dorm room on my hall, I came across this giant horde of drugs that this real mean-tempered scumbag in my dorm had not even attempted to conceal, even though he knew when the once-a-semester inspection would be. Pills, weed, what I was reasonably sure was crystal meth — just a ton of it. On his wall was the movie poster for “Fear and Loathing” – alongside a lot of naked anime girls.
This guy was just the worst sort of waste-case loser – dating a high school girl in his junior year, constantly trying (and failing) to cheat on her with college girls, listening to Toby Keith records full blast with his doors and windows open, loudly telling racist jokes with his fraternity brothers and, the kicker, he was a freaking business major.
This guy was everything Hunter would have hated. He was, in no uncertain terms, the enemy.
Which is why I’m glad the volumes and volumes of Hunter’s best stuff continue to be turned out – his letters, new printings of “Hell’s Angels” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 76″ (probably my favorite of his books) – and Johnny Depp suiting up for the upcoming film version of his novel, “The Rum Diary.” There are even rumors we may finally see the great rumored novel, “Polo is My Life.”
The more layers of legend we peel back, the more of the man and his work we see, the better we can really appreciate him and what he gave us.
The weird never die.